5 DWIs: An Interview with a Repeat Offender

By Brian Whitney 12/11/17

“Many repeat DUI offenders (about 45% in one study) have underlying undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues that contribute to their repeated DUI behavior."

keys next to glasses of alcohol
"The fourth one...wait, I messed up, that was the fourth the one when the cop beat me up."

I know a guy who has been arrested for DWI five times.

I got my first, and last, DWI around 15 years ago. I remember seeing the blue lights up ahead in front of me in the road and thinking to myself how I was all set, because a cop already had someone pulled over. I could drive right by and go on home with no issues at all.

It turned out to be a roadblock that I was looking at, set up to catch people like me. I was arrested and charged with an aggravated DWI--because my Blood Alcohol Content was so high--which I ended up pleading down to a regular old garden variety DWI. This plea deal kept me out of jail, but still cost me thousands of dollars in attorney fees and fines, caused me to lose my license, was humiliating at work and in my personal life, and made me realize what a total idiot I was. I wasn't just an idiot because I got busted, I was an idiot because I could have killed someone. I was an idiot because I was so irresponsible, so uncaring about the world around me.

This wasn’t the first time I had driven drunk, I did it pretty much all the time. I lived in a suburb of a small city, and once or twice a week I would go into town, get totally hammered, and drive home. I was in my late 30’s when I got busted, and I had been drinking and driving since high school. I had a few close calls with the police of course, but I was pretty used to getting away with things with no consequences at that point in my life, so I just kept doing it.

I wasn’t the only one. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, about 1.5 million people are arrested in a given year for driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. That means that one out of every 121 licensed drivers are arrested for drunk driving.

But then I stopped. Eventually I stopped drinking, but first I stopped driving when I was ridiculously drunk. I walked, I took cabs. Most of it was because of self-preservation. At one point in my life I was a prisoner advocate for the ACLU and I saw many people behind bars in prison who were there for Driving While Intoxicated. I swore I wasn’t going to be one of them, and as it turns out, I wasn’t.

But what of those of us who don’t stop? What separates all of us? Those who would never drive drunk in the first place, those who do it and stop when they get arrested, and those who get arrested over and over again?

In New York State, 20% of people that get popped for DWI’s have been convicted of the same charge before.

Brandy Nannini, VP of Government Relations and Traffic Safety at Responsibility.org, says that “Many repeat DUI offenders (about 45% in one study) have underlying undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues that contribute to their repeated DUI behavior. Also, many are not just drinking alcohol. They use drugs as well. Unless those issues are identified and treated, a person will not change their behavior. That’s why we funded the CARS tool, to identify those issues and help the criminal justice system connect them to the right treatments, punishments and restrictions that will result in behavior change. DWI courts do an excellent job in changing behavior among repeat offenders. We have strongly supported the implementation of DWI courts which is much more effective when compared to jail in terms of money spent and behavior changed.”

Edward Griffin, an attorney at Adelphi Law, concurs: "As a private criminal defense attorney with more than a decade of experience, the first thing I tell a new DUI client is how important assessment and treatment is for them. Honest assessment is critical, because if the client has a serious problem with alcohol, then addressing it and getting them the treatment they need can protect themselves, their loved ones and their community."

None of this assessment or treatment has happened with the guy I know. He wasn’t sent to DWI court, he has never been to rehab. He has been arrested five times, convicted four, and twice has had contact with the police when he should have been charged with a DWI and was let go. When sober, he is a very nice man who has long worked in social services. Recently he sat down with me to talk about his history.

When did you first start drinking and driving?

I started drinking and driving regularly when I was around 17, a couple of times a week, pretty much always on weekends.

And when did you first get caught?

The first time I got busted I was 26 years old. I was out partying and some guy was mad because his girlfriend liked me, he knew a bunch of cops and he called them on me. They pulled me over when I was almost home. I was just barely over the limit. I could have fought it, but you know it was just like a $500 fine, so I thought I would just do it at that time and move on.

So then what happened after that?

About six months later I got a second one in Washington State. That was a little more serious. I had to go to drunk camp for a couple of weeks.

How did that go down?

I was drinking all day in Port Angeles with this fisherman that I had just met, and I needed to get home so I started driving, I ended up trying to take an exit and winding up on a median. I was locked on there and I couldn’t get off. The car wouldn't move. A cop came and I was trying to explain to him what happened and I touched his arm and he was like “Never touch a cop” and I did it again because I was hammered, so he brought me in. At first my bail was 35 bucks, but then they found out about the first one and it went up to 600, so I called my boss and she bailed me out. Then I was quiet for a while, kind of chilled out on the drinking and driving thing for around eight years. Although I did dodge two during that period. I went off the road one time, but I passed the sobriety test so they let me go, then another time I took out a telephone pole after leaving a bar, and they just took me to the hospital without ordering a blood test.

All right, so you are like in your mid 30’s when you got your next one?

Yeah so I had been drinking all day, all week long. I was living in a small town on the coast of Oregon. I got in my girlfriend's car and drove to the nearest bar where I had like four more drinks and then drove around really fast all around the town and took out a telephone pole. I was totally disoriented so I started walking back to this cookout where I was supposed to be, I just left the car there and started walking and this cop bum rushed me because you know, I was walking away from the scene. He ended up choking me out and I passed out and I hit my forehead. This would have been number three, I would lose my social work job, I would be a felon, I probably would have had some significant time and so on. But you know he roughed me up so they dropped it down to like a second, I painted a school for two days, lost my license for four years, and i had to go to jail for a couple of weeks.

Did you drive that whole time you lost your license?

Well I did once, but then it was like, what the fuck am I doing? If I got caught they would take me to jail so I stopped. I was still drinking like a fish though. My poor girlfriend.

Yeah, not the best thing for relationships, so what was the fourth one?

The fourth one...wait, I messed up, that was the fourth the one when the cop beat me up.

You lost track?

Yeah I did. I had another one when I was around 30 that was my third. It was after my rugby practice and we were all getting wasted, and I thought “I am never going to get to work if I don’t get home,” so I got on the highway and started driving home. At some point I realized I couldn't do that, I was way too drunk, so I started to turn around on the highway to go back to where I was, then I just pulled over and parked and went to sleep. Pretty soon I heard someone knocking on my window and a cop was there saying “Hey sir, open up” and I said “No.” Then he said if I didn’t he was going to have to break it. So I lowered the window and I was kind of mad, you know, because I was trying to sleep and he said “Well we just had a report of someone going the wrong way on the freeway” and I said “It wasn’t me.” I mean I seriously said that. So that was my third, but they didn’t know about the one in Oregon, so that was my second as far as they knew.

So then you just got arrested again just a few months back?

Yeah I had spent the night drinking and knew I was too drunk to drive, so I slept in my car. Then I got up at around five in the morning and started to drive home but I ran out of gas, so there I was standing there outside of my car when the cops showed up. They said I smelled like booze, but you know I wasn’t even in the car. They wanted me to take a breathalyzer but I said no, and so they charged with me a DWI, but then I got a lawyer, and it didn’t stick. They suspended my license for around 20 days and it was around a $500 fine.

So you’re done with all this?

I would like to say so, but the problem is when I am drunk...I mean it just scares the shit of me. If I have four or five then I won’t drive, but sometimes if I have 12 I just kind of blackout.

That is what I was just going to ask you…

Like what if I killed somebody?

Yeah, has there ever been a long period of time that you stopped doing this? You really should have around seven convictions at this point. When does it stop?

There was around 2-3 years, where i just relied on my friends or taxis, then I don’t know what happened, how the decision came about for me to start doing it again. I wish I could give you some sort of an answer. I have no idea when it stops. Or how. I hope it has.

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Brian Whitney has been a prisoner advocate, a landscaper, and a homeless outreach worker. He has written or coauthored numerous books in addition to writing for AlterNetTheFixPacific Standard MagazinePaste Magazine, and many other publications. He has appeared or been featured in Inside Edition, Fox News, People.com, Cracked.com, True Murder, Savage Love and True Crime Garage. He is appearing at CrimeCon in 2019. You can find Brian on Facebook or at Brianwhitneyauthor.com.