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Serial Drunk Drivers

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POSTED: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 8:58pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 - 10:34pm

It doesn't have an age nor does it have a gender, and it isn't a certain race.

DWI is anybody's crime and one that is entirely preventable.

So far this year, about 37 traffic accidents in El Paso County involved a drunk driver.

But perhaps the most dangerous offenders are the ones who don't learn their lesson the first time, until somebody gets hurt, or worse.

Veronica Herrera fought back tears as she told NewsChannel 9 about her brother Gabriel Morales.

"He was a beautiful person in the outside but oh my gosh, he was much more beautiful inside. He is greatly missed by his family, his friends, his coworkers. We miss him terribly," said Herrera.

Twenty-nine year old Morales' life was cut short back in November 2013 when he was hit and killed, head-on, by a suspected drunk driver on the wrong side of the freeway.

According to county jail records, the man who allegedly hit him, 49 year old Larry Otero, had a history of drinking and driving.

Otero now faces an intoxication manslaughter charge but he's currently out on bond.

Veronica says her family has forgiven him, although the tragedy has forever changed them.

"This child of mine is 11 years old and he already knows what's right and he knows what's wrong. And he prayed, he prayed for the drunk drivers of the city that they would change, so that they would be safe and that he and his family would be safe too," said Herrera.

Meanwhile, El Paso attorney Dereck Wyatt represents many of those drunk drivers.

In fact, one in four cases the firm handles involves DWI.

"People get away with DWI so often that they're just willing to chance it," said Wyatt.

Wyatt says he warns his clients that law enforcement won't think twice about busting you for it, but yet, chronic drunk drivers are still out on our roads.

"DWIs have the highest rate of conviction of any type of case that I handle. If you really want to know why people get DWIs and they're still on the highways, because that's the way the laws are. The laws really aren't that strict for DWI," said Wyatt.

In Texas, a person's first 2 DWI convictions are considered 'Misdemeanors,' which means you probably won't spend too much time behind bars.

Your driver's license does gets suspended, though, and you may even be required to get an interlock device installed in your car, but Wyatt says it isn't considered a felony until you get more than two convictions - that's when you could go to prison anywhere from 2 to 10 years, or just get probation.

"Most juries, when they weigh the seriousness of DWI, they'll say, 'Well, you know, there's some other crimes that are a lot more serious. We're going to give him only 2 to 3 years.' And then parole in Texas goes, 'Well, he only got a 3 year sentence, let's make him serve a year of it.' So after 4 or 5 DWIs, the guy serves a year in prison, he gets out, and what does he do? Gets caught drinking and driving again," said Wyatt.

State Representative Joe Moody, a former DWI prosecutor, argues the laws in Texas are tough.

But he says because DWI is a relatable crime, oftentimes, juries are lenient with their punishments and give probation.

"Those who are repeat offenders, you know, we do need to hold them accountable for the actions that they're taking," said Moody.

And policies like "No Refusal" in El Paso County do help.

If you're suspected of driving drunk and refuse to give a breath sample, law enforcement can get a search warrant to draw your blood.

"You're talking about somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 deaths a year, alcohol-related in Texas, and it is a serious problem," said Moody.

The grass isn't any greener on the other side of the border in neighboring New Mexico - the number of deadly DWI crashes hasn't dropped in the past 5 years.

"This is an epidemic," said New Mexico Senator Phil Griego.

Griego has dedicated many years to making those laws stiffer.

He says because of his hard work, the state of New Mexico is one of the toughest states in the country when it comes to enforcing interlock devices in the car, mandatory even for first-time offenders.

Safety experts say it cuts drunk driving down by up to 75 percent.

"I think what you need to start doing is you need to start educating our kids in preschool about the evils of drinking and driving," said Griego.

He argues judges also need to be more strict with punishments on the bench.

The issue of DWI hits close to home for Senator Griego and not because he lost a loved one to it.

"I have 2 DWIs. I got one on February the 14th the year 2000 and then I got another one on April 11th, 2001," he admitted. "It was almost like an addiction. I mean, I was drinking early in the morning, I would have a drink on the way to work, I'd have miniatures in my truck."

Griego's convictions were a wake-up call and now his message to families who've lost a loved one to DWI is clear.

"I am so sorry, and that God bless you all because it could have been me. I could have done this," he said.

Back in El Paso, Veronica finds hope in prayer that more offenders take the same high road.

She now speaks out against DWI in memory of her brother.

"I think that if he had a chance to say anything to the world, he would yell from his lungs and say, 'Change!' To those people who are drinking and driving, change! Make a better choice. If you're going to have fun, great. Have it. But be responsible and care for the other people that are sharing the roads with you," said Herrera.

The District Attorney's offices in both El Paso and Doña Ana County say they have a zero tolerance policy for DWI.

Both agree that the solution to the problem is multi-faceted one, and that prevention and education is just as important as the law.

For more information on DWI laws, visit http://www.txdot.gov/inside-txdot/division/traffic/safety/sober-safe/intoxication.html

For more information on DWI prevention and education, visit http://www.madd.org/

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