In the United States, pretty much everyone knows and agrees that drunk driving is dangerous, is against the law, and can harm others. Well, mostly everyone: some celebrities seem to consider themselves above the law—largely because they have seen many of their colleagues commit this criminal offense with few or no consequences. It certainly seems as if celebrities get off easy when charged with Driving While Intoxicated (DWI):
- Paris Hilton was given probation after a drunk-driving charge—and she violated the terms of her probation three times by driving with a suspended license. When the judge finally decided to give the hotel heiress some consequences for violating probation, he sentenced her to 45 days in jail—but the sheriff’s office released her after only three days, citing a “mysterious medical condition.” She was sentenced to in-house probation, which she served in her resort-like mansion. She has since been arrested for cocaine possession in the U.S. and drug possession in Japan, yet she has earned no further prison time.
- Ryan Rottman, star of the TV show “90210,” had his drunk-driving charge dismissed, even though his blood-alcohol level (BAC) was more than twice the legal limit in California, where he was arrested. Instead, he earned 3 years of probation and had to pay a $350 fine.
- Mel Gibson’s infamous DWI arrest was expunged from his record 3 years after the incident—even though his BAC was significantly higher than the legal limit. He also resisted arrest, made threats, and tried to run away from the police. Not even after being taken into custody did Gibson stopped with the threats, vicious anti-Semitic remarks, and hooligan behavior.
Clearly, celebrities get preferential treatment. In California, where these cases occurred, prison overcrowding is so bad that a panel of judges declared it a safety hazard for prisoners. Yet the state is debating whether to release elderly prisoners—though it certainly has no problem releasing actors and rich party girls who don’t feel very well.
Meanwhile, in the Real World
The rich and famous have deep pockets and can afford top-flight lawyers, use their connections, and in other ways work the system so that DWI/DUI laws will not disrupt their jet-set lives. Those options are not available for the rest of us, and the system is not nearly as lenient or flexible. Most of us are subject to much more severe penalties, mainly due to the popularity of Zero Tolerance laws.
Zero Tolerance laws are mandatory penalties regardless of an individual case’s circumstances – they mandate pre-determined sentences. They were first introduced in the 1980s and 1990s, and addressed primarily citizens under age 21, aiming to end the high number of drunk-driving fatalities among teens. But the practice has resulted in more severe penalties across the board and created a zero-tolerance culture surrounding our understanding of and response to intoxicated drivers.
What is the result of this restrictive approach to DWI? Supporters of harsh DWI laws argue that such laws have led to a decrease in accidents and fatalities. According to the United States Department of Transportation, “the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities decreased from 50.6 percent in 1990 to 42 percent in 2009.”
That’s great news—but has it come at the cost of justice? Here are some examples that ordinary people pay a high price for even one DWI infraction in which no one is hurt:
- In Ohio and Minnesota, some DWI convictions require that the driver use a different color license plate, creating a presumption of guilt that makes drivers suspicious to police even when they haven’t done anything at all.
- In 42 states, your license will be immediately suspended upon conviction for DWI, making it difficult or impossible to travel to work or for treatment for substance abuse, which you may be required to complete to get your license back.
- Many states automatically suspend your license if you refuse to take a Breathalyzer or other chemical test.
- The Governor’s Highway Safety Association reports that in many states “alcohol exclusion laws allow insurance companies to deny payment for treatment of drunk drivers’ injuries, but they have limited doctors’ abilities to diagnose alcohol problems and recommend treatment.”
These consequences are mandated for many people upon one conviction, even with the minimum BAC required for conviction. The penalties are even more severe following multiple convictions. For example, one Texas woman was sentenced to life in prison following six DWI convictions in which no one was hurt.
DWI in North Carolina
The North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles takes drunk driving very seriously. According to its website,
“Drunk driving? or ‘driving while impaired (DWI) in North Carolina? is a serious offense that not only can drain your bank account, take away your freedom, and crush your reputation? it also can seriously injure and even kill.”
According to state law, DWI offenses are categorized into five levels, with penalties assigned according to the level of the offense. All mandate jail time, starting with 24 hours for Level 5 offenses. Sometimes a defendant can plea bargain down to a “wet reckless” charge, which is reckless driving while under the influence. However, the charge reduction is usually granted to first-time offenders only; for repeat offenders, the resulting sentence for a “wet reckless” is similar to that of a second DUI/DWI conviction.
Such laws have been controversial in North Carolina, as they have across the United States. There are vocal and active lobbies on both sides of the argument over what should be the appropriate penalty for drunk driving. What this means for you is that it is never worth it to try to get home after you’ve had a few. Be safe and protect yourself and others by staying away from the steering wheel if you’ve consumed any alcohol at all.