When I was a law clerk I worked on a case for a client’s son who had been arrested for underage drinking and driving while intoxicated (DWI). I was responsible for doing the research that made the sobriety test results inadmissible. And my research helped the firm establish that there was no probable cause to pull the kid over. So we got the kid off. And I was proud of myself for doing such a good legal job.
Can’t help but bring it up
And beat the point to death
But my Words are for nothing
I’m wasting my breath…
(Beat The Point To Death; Amy Winehouse)
Within six months the kid was dead. He was killed in his car, driving drunk. I wasn’t so proud anymore. In fact, it made me decide that it was the last time I worked on a DWI case–and I almost quit law all together before I’d really even started. Not because I don’t think those arrested for DWI or DUI deserve representation, I do. But maybe if I hadn’t worked so hard to get the kid off, he could have sobered up without a license, or in jail, or at least felt some of the consequences of driving drunk. Maybe he wouldn’t have died.
The Driver Suffered Minor Injuries
Sometimes I listen to audio podcasts at work. Sixty Minutes had a segment last week on drunk driving (DWI Deaths: Is It Murder?), and a prosecutor who is pushing for tougher penalties. Even without the benefit of video, the story was horrific. In 2005, seven-year old Katie Flynn and her family were riding home in a limousine on a Nassau County (New York) parkway after she and her sister had served as flower girls in their aunt’s wedding. That was, until a pickup truck traveling 70 mph on the wrong side of the road slammed into it.
Chris and Denise Tangney, Katie’s grandparents, saw the truck coming from the back of the limo. “I saw this light come towards me. And I had to think for a second of what that was, ’cause that, it was just out of place,” Denise remembers. “I watched this single light come toward me and all of a sudden it went from a single light to a double light. It happened so quickly I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna get hit.'”
According to the story, both cars were destroyed. The driver of the limo was killed instantly. The family had to be pried from the wreckage, and everyone suffered life-threatening injuries. And little Katie…
“The first thing I heard was my wife screaming, ‘Neil, Katie’s dead,'” Katie father’s Neil remembers. “And I kept saying, ‘No she can’t be dead. She’s just gotta be hurt real bad.’ But I didn’t know what Jen was looking at, what Jen saw.”
“I reached for Kate and she was on the floor. And all that was left of Kate Marie was her head, that I was able to take,” she (Katie’s mom) remembers.
And the driver? Martin Heidgen, the 24-year-old insurance salesman driving the pickup truck had a blood alcohol content that was over three times the legal limit. He’d been on Long Island drinking at a friend’s party on the night of the Flynns’ wedding. Heidgen’s friends told him not to drive. He did anyway, driving for about three miles the wrong way on the parkway before slamming into the Flynns’ limousine and tearing their lives apart.
Martin Heidgen, the driver of the pickup, suffered minor injuries.
Depraved Indifference to Human Life
According to statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), there are nearly 13,000 Americans killed in drunk driving fatalities per year or one every 40 minutes. But despite all the publicity, advertising and education campaigns over the past 10 years, the number of drunk driving fatalities is not decreasing at a rapid rate. The Nassau County District Attorney who prosecuted Mark Heidgen says its because punishment is not tough enough. She’s trying to change that.
Martin Heidgen was arrested and charged not with manslaughter or negligent homicide, which is usually the charge in drunk driving fatalities – but with “with murder by depraved indifference.”
According to Kathleen Rice, the district attorney who prosecuted the case, “The statute under which he was charged required us to prove that through his actions, he had a completely depraved indifference to human life,” she said, because he acted so recklessly others were likely to die. “His actions made the deaths of Katie Flynn and Stanley Rabinowitz (the limo driver) inevitable. It was as inevitable as taking a gun and firing it at an individual who’s standing five feet away from you,” Rice says.
Rice and other law makers are pushing to make harsher the penalties associated with drunk driving. Two new California laws and a tiered system of punishment severity in South Carolina will go into effect this year.
Maybe if the punishment for drunk driving were harsher at the time, Heidgen would have taken a cab. Maybe his friends would have taken his keys.
There but for the Grace of God…
In the United States, the perpetrator involved in a drunk driving fatality historically has rarely been charged with murder. Rice says it is because we, as a culture of social drinkers, tend to identify with the drunk driver, the perpetrator, rather than the victim or the victim’s family.
How many times have you heard, or said to yourself when thinking not of the victim, but the drunk driving the car; “there but for the grace of God, go I?”
And how many times has it been true?
How many times, after drinking several glasses of wine have we gotten behind the wheel, tipsy, or even drunk, and driven down the road, at night, a ticking time bomb? Because, we say to ourselves,
“I’m not that drunk.”
“It’s just a couple miles.”
“I’m more sober than she/he is, so I should drive.”
“It costs too much to call a cab.”
“I’m a professional for heavens sake!?”
And we have no business whatsoever being behind the wheel of a car. But we are. Because, well, that can’t happen to us.
Even though we have friends that have wrecked driving drunk. Even though we know people who had spent time in jail because they were arrested driving drunk. And some of us have lost friends and relatives in accidents where someone was driving drunk. Or God forbid, some of us even know people who got off with a minor slap on the wrist, after having killed people driving drunk.
Spitting Won’t Keep You Sober
If you’re planning to attend a wine tasting, know your limits, and plan for transportation. Even if you use a spit bucket, as do most serious wine tasters, you’re going to absorb wine through your tongue and nose through respiration. Here’s a blood alcohol calculator (BAC) to help determine if you’re driving impaired. As you can see, it doesn’t take too many glasses of wine to put your BAC over the legal limit to drive.
So plan ahead. Because in addition to the hours of education and enjoyment that come with wine drinking, there also comes a great deal of responsibility.
Hire or take along a designated driver. Make sure you have the number of the taxi service in your cell phone and enough cash for a cab. Many cities have a free service called “TipsyTaxi” which provides cabs, free of charge, for those who have had to much to drink. Find out before you attend a wine tasting event. Or get a breathalizer or other device to help you test your sobriety. According to the Sacremento Bee, there are even a number of downloadable iPhone applications, ready to test your sobriety through blood-alcohol calculators and balance tests. And know the penalties in your state for drunk driving.
While we may not be able to stop all the alcohol-related fatalities, maybe we can reduce them. Perhaps we can keep those of us who focus on wine and the wine industry a little safer. Maybe we can help keep tipsy or drunken wine tasters off the road. And maybe we can prevent just one fatality.
~ Amy Corron Power,