Thursday, June 15, 2000

10th DUI brings cries to get tough

Judge pushes for new state law

By Mara H. Gottfried
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Gilbert Hornsby is no stranger to Robert Ruehlman's courtroom. Wednesday was the Harrison man's third time in front of the Hamilton County Common Pleas Court judge, which resulted in his 10th driving-under-the-influence conviction.

        It also landed him in jail for a year and cost him a $750 fine.

        But the judge would like to have sentenced him to a longer term. Judge Ruehlman found Mr. Hornsby, 52, was caught driving for the third time on a license that had been suspended for life.

        He sees Mr. Hornsby as part of a larger problem with Ohio's legal system: People who repeatedly drive on a suspended license do not face penalties strict enough to deter them from driving.

        “A suspended license doesn't mean anything unless the state makes it a high-level felony,” Judge Ruehlman said. “I think if people would go to prison for 10 years, it would make them take it more seriously.”

        Mr. Hornsby was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading guilty to an April 14 DUI in Norwood.

        He was found sleeping in the driver's seat of his Buick Skylark, with the keys in the ignition and the engine running. His blood-alcohol level was recorded at 0.251 — more than 21/2 times the legal limit — and he failed field sobriety tests, police said. It was his third felony DUI since 1997.

        Many in the criminal justice system agree with Judge Ruehlman that driving-suspension laws should be toughened. Others say a harsher penalty would be the worst option.

        “If you tell people they can't drive for life, you're just setting them up to break the law,” said Mr. Hornsby's attorney, James R. Schimanski.

        Judge Ruehlman said he has approached Ohio Rep. Patricia Clancy, R-Colerain Township, about proposing a bill that would make driving on a license that had been suspended for life a felony, and carry eight to 10 years in prison. Driving on a suspended license is now a misdemeanor and the maximum penalty is six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

        Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said he would support such legislation.

        “It's the only way you're going to keep these people from driving,” he said. “Frankly, these people need to be warehoused so they can't grab a set of keys and get behind the wheel again.”

        A law that went into effect in May and stiffened penalties for multiple DUI offenders — up to five years in prison — might have meant a longer sentence for Mr. Hornsby for the DUI conviction. But the law didn't take effect until after his arrest.

        His first DUI was in 1987, and he has had at least one every year between 1994 and 1998.

        Judge Mark Painter, who sits on the Ohio 1st District Court of Appeals and wrote a book about DUI laws, said making the penalty for driving on a suspended license stricter than a DUI conviction would be a contradiction.

        “Driving under the influence seems like a much worse offense to me,” he said.

        Although the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney's Association in Columbus doesn't take a formal position on the issue, Executive Director John Murphy said he thinks there should be harsher penalties for driving on a suspended license.

        “It becomes an issue of repeat offenders being in contempt of court and continuing to thumb their nose at the system,” he said.

        Other experts, however, have focused on the treatment that alcoholics receive.

        Dr. Roberto Soria, medical director of the Bethesda Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program, said that while alcoholics need treatment, they should not be excluded from serving prison time.

        “If we have these people who are repeat offenders, that goes way beyond alcoholism and they should be treated like any other citizen that breaks the law,” he said. “Granted, they need treatment, but when you have this extent of social pathologic behaviors, they need to be put away like any other criminal.”

        But Winnie King, supervising attorney in the Hamilton County Public Defender's Office, said early intervention, not incarceration, is the key.

        “Our office is not in favor of increasing penalties because we're trying to defend people and find other alternatives to locking them up,” she said. “I'd rather see earlier intervention in the form of immediate sanctions that are treatment-orientated to help the offender.”


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