DUIs cost thousands, even for first-time offenders

Colorado State Patrol trooper Kevin Richard works at a drunken driving checkpoint at U.S. Highway 6&50 and 24 1/2 Road near Mesa Mall.

Two margaritas at lunch with a couple of friends turned into a yearlong nightmare for one Grand Junction woman.

As a result of her first and only conviction for driving under the influence of alcohol, the 53-year-old woman, whom we’ll call Patricia, found herself picking up trash along the highway with other jail inmates, making blankets as part of her community service, taking numerous alcohol-education and therapy classes, and paying lots and lots of fines, fees and other costs.

Patricia was so embarrassed by the entire matter, she asked that her real name not be used.

“I was more ashamed of myself than anything else,” Patricia said. “But it was a blessing in disguise because drinking and driving is very risky. You take the risk of crashing and injuring yourself or, worse, someone else.”

Despite it all, Patricia said she feels like it could have been worse for her. The fines and fees and possible jail time all depend on how high a DUI offender’s blood-alcohol content was at the time of arrest. The state’s threshold for a DUI is 0.08 percent, but penalties increase for those whose level exceeds 0.17 percent.

Patricia was at 0.14.

In addition to the fine and fees, Patricia had to take 24 hours of alcohol-education classes and 52 hours of alcohol-treatment courses. She was sentenced to 10 days in jail, which she was allowed to serve through a special work-release program that saved her from having to sleep behind bars.

Instead, she spent time picking up trash along Interstate 70, pulling weeds at the Western Colorado Botanical Gardens, cleaning up graffiti around town and raking up shell casings at a nearby rifle range.

Like all DUI offenders, she was required to take classes at a state-certified alcohol-treatment center. While some lesser offenders have to take as few as 12 hours of alcohol-education courses, Patricia got the maximum, 24 hours, which are taken in two-hour classes once a week for 12 weeks.

Because her BAC level was high enough, she was sentenced to 52 hours of alcohol-therapy courses, also taken weekly in two-hour increments. The maximum sentence for that therapy is 96 hours. Each two-hour class cost $25, bringing her total cost for that portion alone to $950.

All of that, by the way, was in addition to the 96 hours of community service she had to perform, which Patricia fulfilled by making blankets for Camp Good Grief, a program of Hospice & Palliative Care of Western Colorado that helps grieving children. Though she didn’t have to, Patricia paid for the material to make the blankets. Add another $350 to her tab.

Lynn Taylor is Patricia’s instructor for those courses. Taylor works for one of eight treatment centers in Grand Junction that are allowed to offer the therapy and education classes. Each is certified by the state’s Alcohol and Drug Division, which establishes the course work DUI offenders must go through, and is required to report back to the court whether a DUI offender actually finishes them.

Taylor and her boss, Carol Mulligan, work at Inner Journey Counseling at 735 South Ave. Both said that although they often see repeat DUI offenders, most of the people who take their classes actually complete it. Not doing so ensures jail time.

The two women said the education and therapy courses use a scared-straight tactic in teaching why it’s really not a good idea to drink and drive.

“There are a lot of people who are first-time offenders who realize they made a mistake, but the more seasoned offenders feel like somebody is picking on them, or the cops are after them,” Taylor said.

“Maybe once a year they get tipsy and make a command decision to drive,” Mulligan added. “Those kinds of offenders that Lynn is talking about are the ones who are going to do what they need to do. It’s a lesson learned, and it’s not going to happen again. And then we have others who think the rules don’t apply to them.”

The primary lesson from the courses is to teach DUI offenders that they don’t want to get another DUI, period. If that happens, they are likely to actually serve jail time and will see fines and fees nearly triple.

Regardless of those threats, about 56 percent of DUI convictions statewide are repeat offenders, said Christine Flavia, manager of DUI Services for the state Division of Behavioral Health.

Through Nov. 30 of this year, Mesa County judges have convicted 769 people of DUIs and 452 of the lesser DWAI, driving while ability impaired. That already exceeds last year’s combined total of 994 DUIs and DWAIs, and the 851 convictions for both crimes in 2008.

Fines for first-time offenders can be as high as $1,000, but the costs don’t end there. They also could be required to pay hundreds in such additional fees as court costs, probation charges, electronic monitoring, victims funds and a whole host of others.

DUI offenders in Mesa County last year were assessed more than $1.3 million in fines and fees, an average of $1,615 each. DWAI offenders paid a combined $421,000 in fines and fees, or an average of about $930 each, according to court data.

First-time offenders also can face jail time, from five days to one year for those convicted of a DUI and two to 180 days for a DWAI.

In addition to fulfilling obligations for alcohol courses and community service, offenders lose driving privileges for at least nine months and have points assessed against their licenses.

Robert McCallum, spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Branch, said that although first-time offenders can get jail time, it usually is suspended if they complete their required alcohol courses and perform their community service. Jail time only becomes automatic, he said, for multiple offenders.

Given no other aggravating factors, such as injuring someone or causing property damage, sentences depend primarily on the BAC level of the offender, he said.

“There is a lot discretion for the judges,” McCallum said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all with these. If you have zero criminal history, or your criminal history may be tied to a speeding ticket and no prior alcohol-related offenses, it wouldn’t be uncharacteristic to see a probation term unsupervised, depending on how he or she comports themselves in court and what they tell the court.”

Considering the relative severity of her sentence, Patricia said she can’t imagine how much worse it might have been if there had been such aggravating factors when she was ticketed in November 2009. In addition to that sentence, Patricia said there are punishments that will last the rest of her life. Though she had been laid off from her job at the time of her DUI, she was a licensed commercial driver. Because of her conviction, she’ll never get a commercial driver’s license again.

That’s why she’s quick to warn people not to get a DUI in the first place by not drinking and driving at all.

“It doesn’t take much to go over the limit,” she said. “One drink will do it. There’s so many alternatives to not drinking and driving, but if you are going to drink, you should set yourself up so you don’t have to drive.”


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