Only 8 states have laws that both protect the rights of victims of fatal drunk driving crashes and ensure jail time for offenders
WASHINGTON — In January 2019, a judge in Idaho sentenced a man who had a blood alcohol concentration nearly three times the legal limit when he struck and killed a woman crossing the road to probation. In Minnesota during July of that year, a driver with a BAC of .08 who killed a woman out for a walk had to spend 150 days in a county workhouse after pleading guilty to criminal vehicular homicide. And this February, a Colorado man who pleaded guilty to vehicular homicide while under the influence of drugs and alcohol in the death of his girlfriend got eight years of community corrections – instead of the prison time the victim’s family asked for.
While most states have passed laws legally protecting the rights of crime victims, drunk drivers who kill may face mandatory jail time in just 14 states, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) announced today in recognition of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. Only eight states have laws that both protect the rights of victims of fatal drunk driving crashes and ensure that these offenders serve some jail time. Additionally, sentences in drunk driving death cases can be dramatically disparate, according to a look at 100 sentences handed down to impaired drivers who killed between January 2019 and March 2020. For example, in cases where a drunk driver caused one death, sentences ranged from no jail time to 26 years. As the number of fatalities rise in drunk driving crashes, so too does the average length of the sentence, although even these can vary by decades.
“MADD advocates on behalf of DUI victims and calls on judges and prosecutors to treat these cases like the violent crimes that they are,” said MADD National President Helen Witty, whose 16-year-old daughter, Helen Marie, was killed by an alcohol- and marijuana-impaired driver in 2000. “The data tells us that although we have made significant progress, we still have a long way to go when it comes to protecting victims’ rights and recognizing drunk driving as a crime – not an accident or a mistake.”
MADD kicked off National Crime Victims’ Rights Week on Facebook Monday with a conversation between Witty and National Manager of Victim Services Viri Medellin, who talked about the services victims of drunk driving receive free of charge and the rights of those impacted by these 100% preventable crimes. MADD is honoring victims and survivors this week with stories on social media, daily virtual candlelight vigils, interviews with victims and survivors, a memorial rock garden and a virtual celebration of life, in addition to other activities.
Each year, National Crime Victims’ Rights Week promotes victims’ rights and services for all crimes. This year’s theme – Seek Justice, Ensure Victims’ Rights, Inspire Hope – commemorates people and organizations whose advocacy has pushed the victims’ rights movement forward over the last 50 years.
Victim advocacy is a cornerstone of MADD, which has served nearly 1 million victims free of charge since it was founded by a grieving mother 40 years ago. MADD has also advocated for changes to the drunk driving law, including the minimum 21 drinking age law that has saved nearly 32,000 lives, a national standard of .08 BAC for driving under the influence and ignition interlocks for drunk driving offenders.
“In addition to passing lifesaving legislation and advocating for victims’ rights, MADD has helped change the culture around drunk driving,” Witty said. “Thanks to MADD, it is simply no longer acceptable to drink and drive. Still, we’re not there yet. While drunk driving deaths have fallen by half since MADD’s founding 40 years ago, it continues to kill more than 10,000 people a year and remains the No. 1 killer on our nation’s roads. These aren’t accidents. These are sudden, violent crimes. They end lives. They destroy families. They create a ripple effect that can last for a generation. The change is permanent. I can attest to that.”
Thirty-five states now have victims’ rights amendments, according to Marsy’s Law for All, an organization working to establish Marsy’s Law as constitutional amendments in all 50 states and at the federal level. Named for Marsy Ann Nicholas, a University of California Santa Barbara student who was stalked and killed by her ex-boyfriend in 1983, Marsy’s Law is a set of constitutional protections for crime victims. Marsy’s mother was on her way home from her daughter’s funeral service when Marsy’s killer confronted her in a grocery store. He’d been let out on bail days after her murder.
No one had told Marsy’s family. Nothing required them to.
“For those unfamiliar with the criminal justice system, walking into a courtroom for the first time to face the person who injured you or killed someone you love can be overwhelming,” Witty said. “After the death of my daughter, MADD was with me every step of the way, ensuring that I knew my rights and that my daughter and our family were represented.”
To gauge just how states stack up when it comes to protecting the rights of victims of drunk driving, MADD looked at two sets of data: Crime victims’ rights amendments and mandatory minimums in fatal DUI crashes.
While most states do have victims’ rights amendments that vary in magnitude, 15 states still don’t. They are: Arkansas, Delaware, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, West Virginia and Wyoming.
According to the 2017 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Impaired Driving Digest, only 14 states had mandatory minimum sentencing for impaired driving vehicular homicide: Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. Even in the 14 states with mandatory sentences for impaired driving vehicular homicide, there is nothing stopping the Court system from issuing a reduced sentence below the mandatory minimum. In all states, parole and other early release programs for violent offenders allow for early release from incarceration.
MADD also reviewed 100 drunk driving cases in which one or more people were killed. The cases were adjudicated between January 2019 and March 2020 and showed:
- The average sentence in drunk driving cases where one person was killed was 6.98 years, although several offenders got no jail time and one received a sentence of 26-1/2 years.
- The average sentence in which there were two deaths was 22.5 years, although they ranged from 8 years to 90 years. In the latter case, seven people were also injured.
- The average sentence in which three were killed was 29.95 years but ranged from a possible low end of less than seven years to a high of 51 years.
- The average sentence in which four were killed was 37.25 years but ranged from 16 to 54 years.
The likelihood of these 100 offenders serving the total sentence incarcerated is unlikely.
“The violent, preventable crime of drunk and drugged driving kills more than 10,500 people and injures 300,000 people every year,” Witty said. “This week and always, we honor the precious lives lost and the survivors forever changed by drunk and drugged driving, and all victims of violent, senseless crimes.”
About Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Founded in 1980 by a mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, Mothers Against Drunk Driving® (MADD) is the nation’s largest nonprofit working to end drunk driving, help fight drugged driving, support the victims of these violent crimes and prevent underage drinking. MADD has helped to save more than 390,000 lives, reduce drunk driving deaths by more than 50 percent and promote designating a non-drinking driver. MADD’s Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving® calls for law enforcement support, ignition interlocks for all offenders and advanced vehicle technology. MADD has provided supportive services to nearly one million drunk and drugged driving victims and survivors at no charge through local victim advocates and the 24-Hour Victim Help Line 1-877-MADD-HELP. Visit www.madd.org or call 1-877-ASK-MADD.