DWI cases with children increasing
Every child deserves a designated driver — that’s the message that leaders and volunteers with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are sending across the nation.
Recent cases across western North Carolina have brought the issue of driving while impaired offenders with children in the car to the forefront.
Ellen Pitt, MADD representative for WNC, says the problem is becoming increasingly worse, and Haywood County is not an exception.
Around 10 p.m. on July 25, Waynesville police officers pulled over 29-year-old Brandi Nicole Teague, who was driving erratically. According to police reports, Teague struck a curb, weaved in and out of the lanes, and drove only 20 miles per hour in a 50-mile-per-hour zone.
When pulled over, officers noticed a two-year-old girl sitting in the back seat of the car.
“Her actions were very slow and deliberate,” when Teague was pulled over and asked to provide her driver’s license and registration, according to the police reports.
When asked to step out of the car, the report notes she could barely walk and failed the “one leg stand” balance test.
After submitting to a breathalyzer test, her results showed she had been driving with a .21 blood alcohol level — more than twice the legal limit.
Though Teague didn’t wreck that night, some children are not so lucky.
Of the 181 children under the age of 15 who were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes in 2011, more than half of those were killed riding with drunk drivers.
Each year, MADD receives more than 17,000 phone calls related to child endangerment.
News that any person has died in an alcohol or drug related crash is terrible for Pitt, but it’s even more heart wrenching when an innocent child is involved, she said.
The entire MADD organization recently called for tougher laws across the nation for those who choose to drink and drive with a child in the car.
The severity of the crime and the penalty varies from state to state.
In 2009, the Child Passenger Protection Act, also known as Leandra’s Law, went into effect in New York. The act made it a felony for anyone to drive under the influence of alcohol or drugs with a child in the vehicle. Those who violate the law can receive up to 25 years in prison. Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas have similar laws.
North Carolina enacted a new law in 2011, making it a grossly aggravating factor if someone is charged with a DWI with a child under 18 in the vehicle. Offenders can spend up to two years in jail for the crime.
Though the same crime would be a felony if committed in New York, the penalty is still tougher in North Carolina than some other states such as Connecticut, which doesn't have any sentencing enhancer for driving drunk with a child passenger.
If caught in North Carolina, the driver must spend 30 days in jail, pay up to a $4,000 fine and could get more jail time if convicted.
"A judge could impose the sentence of two years, so that would surely get somebody’s attention," said District Attorney Mike Bonfoey.
The driver could also have his or her license suspended for at least a year without limited driving privileges.
Pitt said she would still like to see North Carolina legislators take a cue from New York.
"Our law is severe but I think legislators should explore New York's Leandra's Law and raise the level of awareness," she said.
As far as Pitt is concerned, a child riding in a vehicle with a drunk driver might as well be alone in the car, and it happens frequently.
Earlier in July, Waynesville police arrested 20-year-old Ginger King for DWI, child neglect and reckless driving to endanger. She was caught driving drunk with her 5-month-old baby asleep in the back seat.
In February, 27-year-old Kimberly Uptergrove was arrested for drunk driving after she backed her vehicle into McDonald’s on Russ Avenue with her 3-year-old daughter in the car.
When police approached her she was combative, unsteady on her feet and had blood shot, glossy eyes. Police also found a bag of marijuana under the child’s safety seat.
Uptergrove’s charges are still pending in court.
A Jackson County mother recently ran her vehicle into a mobile home with two unrestrained children in the back seat and a Brevard doctor was jailed after driving drunk and running over mailboxes with her child in the car.
“I still carry around an arrest report from 2005 on an offender who had a 5-year-old little girl in the car, took her to a drug buy, took some pills, almost hit some cars, fled from the police and was so drugged at arrest he was drooling. Other cars had called the police when they saw the erratic driving and the little girl screaming in the back seat,” Pitt said.
Drugged driving is another issue that’s on the rise.
“Some drivers have ingested enough pills or smoked enough marijuana to put them in a stupor and child passengers are often unrestrained,” Pitt said.
Pitt hopes that legislators will consider the number of child injuries and deaths and help put a stop to these crimes.