Friday, December 16, 2011

Should DWI be a capital crime?

Douglas Berman over at Sentencing Law and Policy seemed quite upset that motorists in Texas continued to get behind the wheel of a car after drinking. He couldn't understand why, even with No Refusal weekends popping up all across the state, we insist on drinking and driving.

His suggestion was to make a drunk drivers involved in accidents in which another person is killed eligible for the death penalty. Whoa! There's crazy and then there's driving the bus over the cliff. Mr. Berman is driving the bus.

In Texas you are eligible for the needle if you kill a police officer or a prison guard. You are eligible for the needle if you kill someone during the commission of certain felony offenses (kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault, burglary or arson - among others). You are eligible for the needle if someone paid you to kill another person. You are also eligible if you kill more than one person or a child under the age of six ten (thanks, Amy).

In each instance, the defendant must have committed the murder - or the underlying felony offense - with the proper mental state. You remember, that whole bad act + bad thought = crime.

Now Mr. Berman is correct that some DWIs are prosecuted as felonies. If you are driving while intoxicated with a child under the age of 15 in the car - that's a state jail felony (if you're not from Texas, don't ask). Rack up two DWI convictions and your next will land you in felony court as well.

But here's where Mr. Berman's idea fails - there is no culpable mental state for driving while intoxicated. The theory is that an intoxicated person cannot form the necessary mental state to commit a felony offense. And, if you think about the definition of intoxication in Texas, it makes sense.

Texas defines intoxication as the loss of the normal use of one's mental or physical faculties by the introduction of alcohol into the body. Well, if you've lost the normal use of your mental faculties, you are incapable of intentionally or knowingly committing any other act. That's why when someone is killed in a wreck involving an alleged drunk driver, the defendant is charged with intoxication manslaughter, not murder.

One thing we don't know from the data Mr. Berman is viewing is how many of those deaths in 2010 were the result of the drunk driver's negligence. As perverse as it sounds, it's quite plausible that the drunk driver was not at fault for the accident. I would also argue that it's possible that the increased number of deaths resulting from drunk driving has more to do with increased detection through the use of mandatory blood draws in fatality accidents in which intoxication is suspected.

I don't know whether Mr. Berman was being extreme in order to generate discussion or whether he actually feels that way; either way, as a civilized society we should be looking for ways to reduce the number of people our government kills, not increasing it.

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