Around Acadiana

Nov 13, 2013 10:48 PM by Erin Steuber

The State of OWI's in Acadiana

In a state where "let the good times roll" might as well be the state motto, drinking plays its part. From football games to festivals, alcohol is always in attendance. But the good times come at a price, if you get behind the wheel while drunk. And no parish in Acadiana comes close to Lafayette's OWI arrest record, with 1,257 last year. The top four, don't even come close (St. Landry, 402/ Iberia, 312/ Jeff Davis, 266/ St. Mary, 239). For some families these are more than numbers, they're reasons to fight for stricter penalties.

Cathy Sonnier's 22-year-old daughter Rachael was killed by a second offense drunk driver nearly a year ago. Rachael, who was driving, died on impact. Her brother, and now four-year-old son Caiden, were also in the car, but survived.

"In a blink of an eye, my daughter decided to sacrifice her life for her sons. She knew she couldn't get the car out of the way completely and would have put Caiden in direct line for the hit," said Cathy. "So she just took it, and died, knowing she saved her son."

But in our party state, Lafayette Parish ranks the absolute worst, in the state, for alcohol related fatal crashes. This year 16 people have died, and with the holidays coming up, that number is expected to rise. And those who have lost love ones, are begging for stricter sentences.

"Kill someone when you're drunk, minimum sentence 10 years, maximum life," said Cathy. "If that won't sober you up, I don't know what will. Last time I checked, the only bars they have in a jail house are cell bars."

Roughly 2,800 DWI suspects have been prosecuted by the Lafayette City Court in the past three years. Twenty percent of those cases, at least 560 suspects, have seen their cases dismissed. We wanted to know why, and the district attorney says it comes down to being innocent, until proven guilty.

"No, I wouldn't be surprised at the fact that 20 percent may have been dismissed. More than likely, it should have been refused in the first place before they were even filed," said Lafayette DA Mike Harson.

If the person arrested refuses to take a breathalyzer, the state must prove their intoxication with dash cam video and the testimony of the arresting officer. That doesn't always result in a conviction. And nine times out of ten, these offenders aren't looking at jail time anyway.

"A misdemeanor carries up to six months in jail," said Harson. "Now is a person going to go to jail for six months on a first offense DWI? Probably not, and in most other misdemeanors, offenders on a first conviction aren't going to be going to jail either."

The majority of offenders are sentenced to probation, community service, rehab and are fined, A practice Judge Douglas Saloom says is most effective.

"There is a lot of people that would love to incarcerate everyone for six months," said Saloom. "But I'm fond of saying, if you put someone in jail for six months that has a substance problem, and you do not treat the problem, then they come out with the same problem."



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