More than a thousand people die every year on Texas roads because of drunk driving. That's why the legislature decided to get tough, taking a DWI suspects license on the spot. But there's a legal loophole that may be taking the punch out of the punishment.
Lago Vista police dash cam video from 2008 shows 40 year old Jeffrey Dunn stumbling from his company van after being pulled over. A concerned driver who was following Mr. Dunn called police. This would be his fourth DWI. But KVUE News and the Austin American Statesman have discovered that Mr. Dunn would soon be back out on the road legally.
It happens in courtrooms across the state. Texas law allows a person who has had their license taken away after being stopped for DWI to apply for an occupational drivers license. These licenses usually limit a persons driving to no more than four hours per day. Many judges require the driver to keep a log and in some situations install an interlock device. Equipment the driver must blow into checking their breath for alcohol. The occupational license gives drivers permission to get back behind the wheel for essential trips. Work, school, military, medical, rehabilitation and the like. It also limits the time they can drive. Travis County Judge Elisabeth Earle has presided over hundreds such requests. "When I've signed and occupational license i know that that person has valid insurance, sr22, has an ignition airlock on their car if necessary for their case, has a log book so they are writing down where they are going, to and from work. so it's more of an accountability on that person", said Earle.
But not every judge in Travis County is so diligent. In fact the three month investigation with KVUE and the Statesman has revealed these licenses are very easy to get and almost an administrative process of a DWI and it's stunning how little is required of some of these drivers. Case in point, Jeffery Dunn. His petition to the court after the 2008 arrest says he works on-call and therefore must be able to drive 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He also asked for driving privileges in 5 Texas counties for the purchase of necessaries such as food, clothing, shelter, and health care appointments. That means Jeffery Dunn can drive all but 1 minute of every day.
"When you tell someone that they can drive 23 and a half hours in a day, that would give me great heartburn and concern", said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo. He doesn't mince words when it comes to how occupational licenses are being handed out in Travis County "We're the worst state in the union when it comes to drunk driving and drunk driving fatalities. Part of the deterrent affect of suspending drivers licenses is for people to get into their head that driving is a privilege. it is not a right. and when you endanger the public like we do here in Texas way to often where we lead the country in drunk driving fatalities, there has to be a consequence and we have to limit that privilege", said Acevedo.
But Travis County Judge Carlos Barrera says it's rare that occupational licenses are denied. Judge Barrera argues the people who ask for an occupational drivers license are the responsible citizens. They are paying the court costs, insurance premiums, and legal fees which can add up to a thousand dollars. He also argues it keeps people and families from financial ruin by allowing them to get to work. "I don't think we intend for this to be something punitive. The restrictions may be punitive. They're going be sentenced for a conviction. I don't think that having to get an occupational license or being restricted from driving should be part of that punishment necessarily", said Barrera.
And that's why many feel Jeffery Dunn was back out on the road again. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge in January and was sentenced to two years probation and three days in jail.
Tomorrow on KVUE News Nightbeat how the legislature intended to strengthen DWI laws and what would have to be done to close the occupational license loophole. And in Monday mornings Austin American Stateman, read how judges, lawmakers and others disagree about whether revoking a person's license actually deters drunk drivers.