WRAL Investigates

WRAL Investigates: Do DWI punishments fit the crime?

Posted February 8, 2011

WRAL Investigates
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— Unlike people convicted of misdemeanors like resisting an officer, simple drug possession or communicating threats, people convicted of drunken driving in North Carolina often don’t spend their entire sentence behind bars.

When the state implemented structured sentencing in 1994, the law stated that all misdemeanor and felony sentences would be carried out in full, except for misdemeanor driving while impaired.

Sentences for misdemeanor DWI range from probation to two years in prison, but under the law, most sentences are cut in half the second a convicted drunken driver goes to prison.

A WRAL News investigation tracked all 141 DWI offenders who were released last year in Wake County. Records show they served just 36 percent of their actual sentences. More than half of those offenders had multiple DWIs.

For example, Michael D. Hall was sent to prison for his ninth DWI, but despite his record and a two-year sentence issued by the judge, he walked out of prison after 10 months.

Last year, 363 people died in drunken-driving related crashes in North Carolina. One of those crashes killed 17-year-old Laura Fortenberry of Gaston County.

At the time of the crash, the suspect, Howard Pasour, 29, had two pending DWI charges. He has since been convicted on those previous misdemeanor charges and sentenced to a total of three years in prison, but state Department of Correction records show he's up for release four months early.

The Fortenberry case caught the attention of state Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, who said “we are not going to tolerate this.”

“This fellow that killed her had multiple prior offenses and, frankly, should have been in prison,” Moore said.

On Tuesday, Moore introduced legislation to stiffen the penalties for DWIs, especially for repeat offenders.

John McWilliam, a prominent DWI defense attorney in Raleigh, said he doesn’t think it’s a good idea to put people in jail longer.

“People are already scared enough about punishments,” he said.

McWilliam represented Michael Eason, the focus of a previous WRAL News investigation after Eason racked up three DWIs in less than a year. Instead of changing the law, McWilliam said, there's already an option to make sure time sentenced is time served.

“The judge can actually sort of change that cut-in-half business by announcing a minimum sentence,” McWilliam said.

Do DWI punishments fit the crime? Do DWI punishments fit the crime?

This year, the push to get tough on drunken drivers may come down to a debate between public safety and money.

“The legislature is talking about cutting programs, cutting this, cutting that. Well, if you make a decision to lock up misdemeanants for as long as you’re locking up felons, something's got to give at some point,” said defense attorney Jim Crouch.

With the support of Fortenberry's family, Moore said he knows which side of the debate he'll fall on.

Another drunken driving issue that could get a lot of attention this legislative session is those offenders who drive despite having their licenses revoked. One national study estimated as many as 75 percent drive even though they're not supposed to.

There will be a push to expand the ignition interlock program to keep offenders from driving their own cars.


This story is closed for comments.

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  • daddyduck02 Feb 10, 2011

    The DWI laws in this state are a joke or should I say the conviction is a joke. I have been dealing with this for going on 34 years now and the more laws that Raleigh enacts the more the conviction rate falls. Why you may ask. It is because the people that make the laws are the same people that defend those people for committing the same offense. The laws are changed to provide different loopholes to keep the public fooled into thinking that they are doing something about these killers. It's just a smoke screen that all lawmakers are common in producing. Example why give a person a bond of 1000.00 when they only have to come up with .15% of it to get out. Why not make $1000.00 mean $1000.00 and why give a person a sentence just to turn around and suspend that sentence. A year's sentence should mean exactly that. Smoke, Smoke, and more Smoke. When are people going to wake up. Attorneys run our court system and they also make the laws. Sounds like a conflict to me? What about you?

  • jscletsplay1002002 Feb 9, 2011

    @ godnessgracious
    Absolutly, if they cause a wreck or hit someone, kill someone, while doing those things they should be charged with at least attempted murder.
    If they get caught speeding, texting, etc... they should be charged with assult with a deadly weapon if it almost causes an accident or almost hit someone, just like If I take a gun and point it in your direction, whether intending on shooting the gun in your direction or not, it is still a crime, assult with a deadly weapon.

    I dont see the difference here. People need to be more responsible when driving, autos are not toys, they can cause a lot of damage to property and persons.

  • John Sawtooth Feb 9, 2011

    I want more consistent sentencing and time served for DWI offenders.

    Repeat DWI offenders, habitual DWI offenders are NOT 'fixed' by the punishment or 'lesson' of jail time. The young man who killed my father (and almost me) during his 5th DWI continued to offend after serving 7 years in prison. He received probation for DWI #6 and 7 a few years later, and only his early death stopped him.

    We need another solution for habitual DWIs. Prison isn't solving it. Perhaps some sort of sentencing to a supervised 'halfway house' or some mechanical intervention - but prison won't change their behavior.

    Don't change the law if it doesn't fix the issue. Enforce our already strict laws consistently & fairly. Find a NEW solution to problems the law doesn't fix.

  • hcaufield Feb 9, 2011

    The only way you'll eliminate DUI anywhere is to outlaw the consumption of alcohol and when you do that you can watch NC become as populous as the 1932 dust bowl. People are going to drink and drive, some to an obscene extent, others more moderate. This area is an urban sprawl, we drive everywhere, to school, to church, to supermarkets, restaurants and bars. And we all benefit from the taxes the government pulls in on alcohol and most restaurants/bars enjoy nothing more than a group of big spenders keeping their bartenders hoppin. Drinking and driving is not going to stop until something else changes and sending people to jail for long sentences is not the answer to a social problem.

  • godnessgracious Feb 9, 2011

    Only if we can charge anybody who does any number of dangerous driving habits with attempted murder. Speeding...attempted murder. Running a red light...attempted murder. Texting while driving...attempted murder. Yawning or sneezing...attempted murder. Medical condition while driving...attempted murder. No directional while changing lanes...attempted murder. Why can we not just focus on where the car went and how? You don't have to be drunk to have a blantant disregard for the rules of the road. It usually helps, but is not a pre-requisite. Why punish people who do follow the rules but drink a little? Personally, I don't think the gov't should play in proboalities. Punish drunk crashers, leave the people who don't crash alone, unless their vehicle exhibits signs it is being driven improperly or not in accordance with the rules of the road. This would not include an unconstitutional checkpoint to check your BAC. These laws have gone too far.

  • Bill of Rights Feb 9, 2011

    I would love to see drunk drivers charged with attempted murder. Drunks who kills others as a result of their drunk driving are guilty of nothing less than 1st degree murder and should be sentenced appropriately.

  • godnessgracious Feb 9, 2011


  • SouthernBornSouthernBred Feb 9, 2011

    I don't understand the government at all. You can drive down the road drunk, wreck and kill somebody and you get no jail time. You can go to almost any restaurant and drink but you can't go anywhere and smoke. I think they have this backwards. If you smoke and get cancer that is your choice. If you are driving down the road and get killed by a drunk driver that is the drunks fault you had no choice. If you are going to ban something that harms people ban drinking, because it harms the innocent people. I prefer not to be around either one of them, cigs stink and drunks aren't funny.

  • Objective Scientist Feb 9, 2011

    It never ceases to amaze me that there are ALWAYS "those" who respond to a discussion of this topic by arguing/making a case for actually INCREASING the limit on BAC! Hey... I can understand and appreciate those who take the position that there is not much difference in impairment between .08 and .09, but that can go on and on and on... from .09 to .10, from .10 to .11, etc. So... your point is??? Those who "brag" about being able to "hold their liquor... or beer, or wine, or moonshine" are "whistling in the wind" and don't know about which they talk. Alcohol is a depressant, NOT a stimulant. It impairs perception, judgment, and ability to react quickly and appropriately. As a society we will "demonstrate" against too many of us dying in a war that may last for several years, but have little to no reaction when that many or more die from "drinking and driving" in only ONE year.

  • Objective Scientist Feb 9, 2011

    Posted by tran: "Impairment starts way before .08."

    It depends on the definition of impairment.

    "We need to reduce the blood alcohol concentration to .05 ..."

    Why stop at .05? Why not zero? Isn't that where this business is headed anyway?
    In an "ideal world" it would be "zero"! There is research to support the statement "impairment starts way before .08." This is not conjecture... it is FACT supported by multiple studies. If not "zero" the question becomes how much "impairment" are all of us willing to tolerate? If .02 slows one's reaction time in taking "foot off the gas onto the brake" by a millisecond that may be too much impairment if it is your child running into the street, etc. For the person with no kids and who loves to "booze it up", .02 is "way too high". For the "well-being of all", it does need to be less than .08. And, there is NO excuse for "drunk drivers" getting off lightly!!! And, change the law so that increasing "priors" result in longer sentences!