A young Putnam County man, Caleb Beckner, was on parole for theft when he drank heavily and took Heather Brooks, 22, riding in his car. He lost control in a curve and crashed, killing the young woman. The driver's blood alcohol was 0.166, more than double the legal limit.
At the end of his trial last week, a Putnam jury convicted Beckner of mere misdemeanors -- DUI causing death and aggravated DUI -- which carry maximum sentences of one year and six months.
Assistant prosecutor Kristina Raynes said the dead passenger's "mother was pretty devastated.... She felt it was felony conduct, as did I."
Amen. When drunken drivers kill people, the horrible act should rise above misdemeanor status.
Boozy driving is a curse in West Virginia, as it is in many states. Families are shattered by the senseless, needless loss of lives and mangling of many other victims. It's a terrible waste of human potential. Futures terminate instantaneously.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving ranks the Mountain State as the nation's 12th-worst, with 90 DUI deaths in 2011. Alcohol was involved in more than one-fourth of this state's fatal crashes that year. MADD says West Virginia had 27,837 three-time offenders and 10,549 five-time tipsy drivers. The group added that DUI cost West Virginia $414 million in 2011.
The Governor's Highway Safety Program says this state had 10,794 DUI arrests last year, and more than 4,000 so far in 2013.
Aging Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., who died this week, spent much of his political career fighting the curse of alcohol on the road. He sponsored laws that lowered the legal blood alcohol limit to 0.08 percent and raised the legal drinking age to 21. Lately, he crusaded for a reform requiring every convicted drunken driver to install an ignition interlock device to prevent a car from starting if the driver's breath contains alcohol.
Drunken drivers are only a tiny percentage of motorists -- about one out of 2,000, MADD says -- but they cause nearly one-third of traffic deaths. "Every 53 minutes on average, someone is killed in a drunk driving crash.... Every 90 seconds, someone is injured because of this entirely preventable crime."
Why are some people so irresponsible that they guzzle alcohol to excess, then get behind the wheel and drive? Have they no sense? It's an ugly blight on America.
And when they kill people, it never should be treated as a mere misdemeanor.