Jurors and Judges Up the Penalties for Driving While Drunk

A North Carolina man's sentence of life in prison without parole is one of the toughest ever handed down on a drunken driving murder charge. It signals to some increased efforts by prosecutors, judges, and juries to get even tougher on drunk drivers.

A jury convicted Thomas Richard Jones of first-degree murder in the deaths of two college students. During the penalty phase of the trial this week, prosecutors had sought the death penalty for apparently the first time in a drunken-driving murder case. Mr. Jones, who had abused alcohol and narcotic painkillers, had been convicted twice on charges of driving while impaired.

"I think we're getting a new group of prosecutors who realize the seriousness of the crime, and that's why they're pushing for the maximum penalty allowed by law," says Karolyn Nunnallee, president-elect of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

States are trying new forms of punishment against those who drive impaired, Ms. Nunnallee says. Shame is one tactic gaining popularity. Some judges require repeated drunk drivers to put window decals or install special license plates on their cars. In other instances, intoxilizers - devices that test a person's breath - have been installed in offenders' cars.

STILL, some say some measures go too far. "There seems to be a real push on severe punitive action, almost to the point where it's an abdication of civil rights," says Bill Cullinane, president of Students Against Drunk Driving. Mr. Cullinane cites an example in Massachusetts where high school students were forced to go through a breathalyzer test to attend their prom. "Where are the civic rights here ... and does that really solve a problem or does it make people feel good? These quick-instance responses to the issue of substance and alcohol abuse" don't get at the problem.

Some legal experts say the sentence reflects an effort by juries to signal that people should take personal responsibility for their crimes.

The North Carolina case and a Florida case this week in which a jury ruled a tobacco company was not liable for the death of a smoker, suggest "a backlash from cases several years ago when people were saying don't blame me, blame society," says Christo Lassiter, associate professor of law at the University of Cincinnati. "People are sick and tired of others not being accountable for their behavior. I don't think it's a growing awareness of drunk driving - that has been here for an entire generation."

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