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Court Approves Life Sentence for Repeat Drunk Driver

Dec 18th, 2017 OWI Court Approves Life Sentence for Repeat Drunk Driver

A Texas court recently sentenced a nine-time repeat drunk driver to life in prison[i], and his sentence was affirmed on appeal.

In this case, the defendant pled guilty after being arrested for his ninth DWI offense, and the trial court imposed a life-sentence. On appeal the defendant argued that his life-sentence was excessive and, therefore, cruel and unusual. The court indicated that when a punishment that falls within the legislatively prescribed range it is essentially “unassailable on appeal.”

One way to attack such a sentence in Texas is to argue that it fails the gross-proportionality test, which when applicable, means the gravity of the offense is grossly disproportionate to the severity of the sentence.  In determining if a sentence is grossly disproportional, the court will compare the sentence appealed to sentences received by other offenders in the same jurisdiction and with sentences imposed for the same crime in other jurisdictions. If this comparative analysis validates the initial assessment that the sentence is grossly disproportionate, then it is also cruel and unusual. In making such a comparison, however, the court will consider not only the present offense but also the defendant’s criminal history. In this case the court gave weight to consideration of the recidivist statute because one of “[The] primary goals [of a recidivist statute] is to deter repeat offenders and, at some point in the life of one who repeatedly commits criminal offenses serious enough to be punished as felonies, to segregate that person from the rest of society for an extended period of time.” The court further indicated that “the nine convictions for driving while intoxicated only represent nine times appellant had been caught and prosecuted for that offense. His being a fifty-five-year-old alcoholic who began drinking while in high school suggests that there may be a plethora of other instances wherein he committed the identical crime.

The court ruled that the sentence was appropriate because it was (1) within the statutory range of punishment; (2) all prior convictions were for the same offense, (3) the defendant nevertheless failed to alter his conduct, and, (4) his conduct exposed others to great danger.  Consequently, the court found the life sentence was neither cruel and unusual nor was it grossly disproportionate to the severity of his acts.

Michigan drunk drivers become potential felons after three drunk driving convictions.  The penalty for a felony drunk is one to five years in prison.  However, if this same person has prior felony convictions and on this basis, are charged as a habitual fourth offender, then the sentencing range is up to life in prison.

After receiving the first felony drunk driving conviction, each subsequent drunk driving conviction could also be charged as a felony.  This means that a sixth drunk driving conviction could expose an offender to a sentence range of up to life in prison provide that same offender was charged with a felony drunk driving and a fourth habitual.

There are no published cases in Michigan where a drunk driving offender received life in prison.  The same is not true of cases involving death.  That’s exactly what happened in the Oakland County Michigan drunk driving causing death case involving the speeding Maserati, where  Judge Lanford-Morris of the Oakland County Circuit court sentenced the offender to 25-40 years in prison.

[i] Middleton v. State, Not Reported in S.W.3d, 2017 WL 1173806