Chronic drunken drivers, such as the Carroll County woman arrested on drunken-driving charges last week for the 10th time, present tough choices for Maryland's judicial system.
On one hand, judges want to keep them off the state's roads. On the other hand, judges want to do something to end their abuse of alcohol. Often, one gets done without the other and the cycle repeats, lawyers, judges and abuse counselors said.
That's what officials say happened in Brenda Lee Sawyer's case.
Sawyer, 42, is accused of rear-ending a Maryland State Police car along Liberty Road in Eldersburg about 1 a.m. Tuesday. She was arrested on nine charges, including driving under the influence of alcohol, driving with a revoked license and leaving the scene of an accident, according to police and charging documents.
Sawyer has been in at least two Montgomery County treatment programs before, which helps explain how she managed to avoid significant jail time on eight convictions there, Montgomery State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler said.
Those convictions, from 1980 to 1995 in Montgomery County District Court, include five for driving under the influence (blood-alcohol level of 0.07 percent to less than 0.10 percent) and three for driving while intoxicated (blood-alcohol level of 0.10 percent or higher), according to court records.
The sentences imposed included probation, four suspended sentences, one 60-day weekend placement in a local program, a 60-day sentence and a nine-month sentence -- three months of it at a prerelease center and then six months of in home detention.
Gansler said the county's treatment of Sawyer and other repeat offenders is "a joke."
`The wrong message'
"We send precisely the wrong message," Gansler said. "If you have multiple arrests -- four, five, six times -- and each time you get probation, you're sending precisely the wrong message: that it's OK to drink and drive."
Gansler believes a first drunken-driving conviction should become part of a defendant's record, with no probation before judgment, the typical first-time offender's sentence. And after one incident, he said, "if you don't take advantage of the one chance not to be locked up, to sober up, then you should be locked up" the next time.
"The defendants understand the proclivity of judges not to incarcerate them, so they come in and say, `I'm accepting the responsibility for my alcohol problem. Please help me with my alcohol problem.' That's muddying the difference between having an alcohol problem and getting behind the wheel," Gansler said. "The conduct we should be punishing is not the alcohol problem of the defendant but the driving drunk."
But jail time alone wouldn't help, said Michael M. Gimbel, a former drug addict who heads Baltimore County's Bureau of Substance Abuse. He was driving to a meeting of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving in Washington, where he was to appear on a panel about repeat drunken drivers, when he heard of Sawyer's 10th arrest.
`The classic situation'
"I started my presentation off with this, because this is the classic situation: a person who is addicted to alcohol, and the system trying to stop that person from drinking and driving without addressing the root cause of the problem," he said.
"We could put her in jail for five years, but if we don't treat her addiction, she'll come out and do it again. That's the biggest part of solving the chronic repeat-offender drunk-driving problem."
Baltimore County has a DWI Correctional Treatment Facility, operated by Right Turn of Maryland in Owings Mills, which treats defendants from all over the state who are charged with drugged or drunken driving, both before and after a conviction.
"Alcoholics don't care if they don't have a license, if you take their car away, if their family throws them out of the house -- because the drive is to continue to use. That's why we built the center to address two parts: one, confronting the addiction, and two, taking away their freedom," Gimbel said.
The Baltimore County program combines incarceration and treatment, with 24-hour monitoring by breath and urine tests, he said. A five-year study of 232 drunken drivers from the program found a 22 percent rate of relapse, compared with an average of 35 percent to 40 percent of people not in the program.
`Not making any excuses'
Montgomery County District Court's administrative judge, Cornelius J. Vaughey, said he "jumped up and down" and ordered Sawyer's files to be pulled after he heard a news report about her Montgomery County record.
Vaughey said he was unable to glean much about Sawyer's Montgomery County cases between 1980 and 1995 because all but the most recent file were at the archives.
"I'm not making any excuses for this," said the judge, who has been on the bench since 1984. "I'm one of those, if you come before me the second time, I'm ugly. The third time, I'm extremely ugly."
"You can't treat [drunken drivers] with kid gloves. I think what was done in Carroll County was probably appropriate under the circumstances," he said of a sentence Carroll County Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. gave Sawyer in June.
Burns found Sawyer guilty of driving under the influence Feb. 15, 2000, and sentenced her to serve six months of a maximum one-year term in the Carroll jail, recommending work release. She served from June 27 to Nov. 8.
On Tuesday, Sawyer was arrested the 10th time. Sawyer, who admitted in court she has an alcohol problem and said she would seek treatment, was released on $10,000 bail Thursday.
There also may be a perception of drunken driving as a social crime, Vaughey said.
"One of the problems is people can see themselves potentially being the drunk driver," Gansler said, "where they can't see themselves pointing a gun in someone's face."
But with the chronic drunken driver, he said, "You're basically pointing a loaded weapon down the highway."