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Editorial: Tougher action needed on repeat DUI offenders

Mar. 23, 2013 @ 10:05 PM

Deborah Lynn Rakes' tragic death last Sunday falls under the heading of an alcohol-related accident.

But when the driver charged in the wreck has a long string of previous DUI arrests, the term "accident" just does not seem to fit.

We will never know how many times 43-year-old Michael Couch of Cabell County has driven drunk, but he had been charged with DUI four times before last Sunday. Unfortunately, neither the criminal justice system nor others in his life were able to give him the wake-up call he apparently needed.

The minivan Couch was driving crossed the center line on the 5th Street Hill in Huntington about 1 p.m. Sunday and crashed head-on into Rakes' sedan. The 52-year-old mother was on her way from services at Christ Temple Church, where she was a dedicated volunteer, to visit her sister in the hospital.

As is often the case with repeat DUI offenders, hindsight is 20-20, and the missed opportunities for stronger legal action come quickly into focus.

Couch was first arrested in 1997, charged with stealing a police cruiser, driving drunk and other infractions. His license was revoked, but the case was dismissed.

In 1999, he was charged with DUI and driving without a license after a crash in Guyandotte, but the DUI charge was dropped in a plea deal. He was fined $300 and charged $194 in court costs, but apparently the fines were never paid.

In 2005, Couch was involved in an accident in Ceredo and blood-tested three times the legal limit. He pleaded guilty to "first-offense" driving under the influence and received 10 days in jail, a $200 fine and $322 in court costs. Those fines have not been paid either.

Later in 2005, he was arrested again for DUI and speeding. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six months on home confinement. Fines and court costs in that case also were never paid.

Couch's case is a reminder that despite progress on many fronts in highway safety, repeat DUI offenders continue to be a dangerous problem, accounting for about a third of all DUI arrests. Sentencing laws in West Virginia and many states treat first and second DUI offenses as misdemeanors and call for tougher action on a "third offense."

Couch's record and those of many others, of course, show that does not always happen.

Moreover, isn't the second offense the real indicator that the offender has more than a casual problem with alcohol? It is time for lawmakers to make a stronger statement on second offenses and for the judicial system to be more vigilant about prosecuting repeat offenders.

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