Tough Va. DUI laws lead to drop in crashes, deaths
Ten years ago, local lawmakers looked at a high-profile DUI case, listened to law enforcement and said, "Enough is enough"
By Louis Hansen
NORFOLK, Va. — Ten years ago, local lawmakers looked at a high-profile DUI case, listened to law enforcement and said, "Enough is enough."
A bipartisan group drafted more than 70 bills seeking to stiffen penalties and enact near-zero-tolerance for repeat offenders.
Did It Work?
DUI fatalities in Virginia have dropped by 21 percent since 2005, according to Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles statistics.
Crashes related to drinking and driving have fallen about 30 percent. Convictions for the offense have stayed relatively steady.
Virginia mirrors a national trend. Alcohol-impaired driving fatalities declined 23 percent in the United States between 2005 and 2012, according to the most recent federal statistics.
Veteran Hampton Roads law enforcement officials and attorneys say strict new laws, especially against repeat offenders, and a cultural shift have helped reduce drunken driving.
"We needed a stronger deterrent," said Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle, an influential state senator at the time. "I think we made a difference."
For years, the commonwealth lagged behind other states in enforcing impaired-driving laws. The General Assembly rejected efforts to lower the legal limit for driving from 0.15 to 0.10 percent blood alcohol content. The legal limit is now 0.08 percent.
At one time, Stolle said, a lawmaker could joke openly about the issue. Stolle, a former police officer, said the attitude offended officers and prosecutors who had witnessed the devastation to families caused by the problem.
One case in May 2003 stood out. Landon Chambers, a 16-year-old honors student at Lake Taylor High School in Norfolk, loved sports, especially baseball, and wanted to become a lawyer. Chambers was riding in a car with his brother along Military Highway about 1:30 p.m. May 6, 2003.
A pickup driven by Roy Lee Everett ran a red light and collided with the Chamberses' vehicle, killing Landon and injuring his brother.
Everett, who fled and was captured by witnesses, should not have been behind the wheel, court records showed. His license had been suspended for an earlier drunken driving charge. About three weeks before the crash, he had been granted $1,000 bond on another DUI charge.
A Norfolk judge sentenced Everett to 14 years in prison for the crime. He also received sentences for other offenses and is not due for release until 2027.
Everett's attorney, George Neskis, said the case was the impetus for the new laws. The tragedy resonated through the community, he said.
Neskis now sees harsher penalties for repeat offenders and those caught with high blood alcohol content.
"The public sentiment is almost a fever pitch," he said. "The laws are certainly tougher."
Attorney Andrew Sacks said cases have grown more complex. Police and prosecutors are well-trained on gathering and presenting evidence. Even though first-time DUI is a misdemeanor, he said, in many ways it seems like a felony.
Lawyers say judges used to have more discretion to mete out punishment for first-time offenders. Punishment across the board has become tougher, several said in interviews. Many employers have also grown less tolerant of alcohol-related infractions.
Convictions can derail Navy and other public service careers.
"The judges are very fair," Virginia Beach attorney Robert Morecock said, "but their hands are tied."
Still, some drivers seem immune to the cultural pressures.
"We shake our heads all the time," Morecock said. "What message have you failed to get when you took those seven shots before you left the bar?"
The collection of 2004 laws — boosted largely by then-Del. Bob McDonnell, Stolle and Sen. Tommy Norment of James City County — tightened drunken driving restrictions, imposing heavier punishments for repeat offenders and further restricting their driving rights. Multiple convictions draw mandatory jail sentences.
The state also established a Trauma Center Fund, supported by $50 fines for offenders. The fund has collected $442,000 since its inception, according to the state Department of Accounts.
Kaye and Bob Walsh, victim advocates for the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, lost their daughter Robin to a repeat offender in 1997. They speak to groups regularly about the pain caused by drunken drivers and advocate for tougher laws.
Both laws and attitudes about the issue have tightened up since their daughter's death, Kaye Walsh said. Two years ago, the state made ignition interlock devices mandatory for first-time offenders.
Walsh said judges and attorneys take the crime more seriously.
"We've made great strides," she said.
High-profile Cases Continue
Norfolk Commonwealth's Attorney Greg Underwood was charged with DUI and acquitted on appeal in Circuit Court. He was convicted of refusing a breath test from state troopers who pulled him over in Norfolk.
Stolle's son, Kenneth W. Stolle Jr., was charged and acquitted of DUI in Virginia Beach.
Last month, Virginia Beach prosecutors became the final office in Hampton Roads to assign prosecutors, instead of police officers, to handle first-time drunken driving cases in court. Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney Colin Stolle said the move was designed to put greater focus on the issue and lower drunken driving rates.
"It's changing the mindset."
Copyright 2014 The Virginian-Pilot