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Taylor County, we have a problem

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DUIs a bigger issue here than in surrounding counties

By Calen McKinney

 

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Russell Heath sits in a small cell.

Jailed for his fourth offense, Heath is the defendant in one of 605 DUI cases investigated by Campbellsville Police and Taylor County Sheriff's deputies in the past five years.

The number of DUIs in Taylor County peaked in 2011, with deputies charging 33 people and police charging 143. Since then, the number of DUIs in the community has declined. So far this year, deputies have made six arrests and police have made 18.

Heath, 78, of 104 Ashton Drive in Campbellsville, pleaded guilty to DUI, fourth offense, driving on a suspended or revoked license, his third offense, driving on a license suspended or revoked for DUI, his third offense, and first-degree wanton endangerment on Jan. 17. Charges of failure to maintain required insurance and being a second-degree persistent felony offender were dismissed.

On Feb. 21, Heath was sentenced to five years' probation. He was also ordered to serve 270 days in jail, have his driver's license suspended for five years and attend a year of alcohol education classes.

Commonwealth's Attorney Shelly Miller, who prosecuted the case against Heath, said the sentence he received last month is consistent with DUI laws in Kentucky. At press time, Heath remained incarcerated at Taylor County Detention Center.

According to Heath's criminal history, he has been charged with DUI seven times in the last 11 years, four in Taylor County and the others in Adair County.

Lebanon attorney Jude Hagan represented Heath in his case. He hadn't returned a phone call at press time to comment for this story.

Statistics from the Administrative Office of the Courts, an organization that maintains court data, among other duties, state that the rate of DUIs in Taylor County is higher than the counties it neighbors.

Those who prosecute the men and women charged with DUI in Taylor County say they take that job seriously, because they know how serious the charges are.

Taylor County Attorney John Bertram, who prosecutes the majority of the DUI cases in Taylor County, said the subject of DUIs is an important one.

"I know there are many families who have been impacted by DUI-related offenses," he said. "It is a serious matter and I handle them with that attitude."

In Kentucky, a person can be charged with DUI when they are driving with a blood alcohol level of more that the legal limit, which is 0.08.

Defendants can be charged with committing first, second, third and fourth DUI offenses, or more, Bertram said. The first three offenses are misdemeanors, which are prosecuted in Taylor District Court, and the fourth offense becomes a felony.

When the charge becomes a felony offense, Taylor County grand jurors hear the case for possible indictment. After a defendant is indicted, the case heads to Taylor Circuit Court for disposition.

In Taylor County, the majority of the DUI offenses are heard in district court. According to AOC records, there have been 1,098 DUI charges filed in Taylor County in fiscal years 2008 through 2012. Of those, 1,028 were heard in district court and 698 of them were for first offenses. Of the others, 224 were second offenses, 74 were third and 32 were fourth.

In circuit court, there were 70 DUI charges filed in the same time period. The majority, at 24, were people charged with first offenses. There were 17 people charged with second and third offenses and 12 charged with fourth offenses.

A driver can also be charged with driving while having his or her license suspended for a previous DUI charge. Bertram said this can also be a felony offense.

A person is charged with DUI based on his or her driving record for the past five years. If someone was charged with a DUI in 2008 and is charged with another one this year, they would both be first offenses.

As punishment, Bertram said, DUI education classes and driver's license suspension are always imposed. The greater the offense, the longer the suspension, he said, from 90 days to a year or two.

In addition, for a first offense, penalties are typically a $200 to $500 fine or two to 30 days in jail. For a second offense, the fine could be from $350 to $500 and the jail sentence could be seven days to six months. Third offenses come with a $500 to $1,000 fine and 30 days to a year in jail.

Fourth offense DUI offenses are Class D felonies, punishable by one to five years in prison.

Bertram said a person can also be charged with an aggravator, which can increase the person's punishment.

Aggravating circumstances include driving more than 30 mph above the speed limit, driving the wrong direction on a limited access highway, driving a vehicle in a way that causes death or serious injury, driving with a blood alcohol level of .15 or higher, refusing to submit to a blood, breath or urine test and driving with a passenger who is younger than 12.

In district court, Bertram said, his office staff members typically don't use plea bargains in DUI cases.

"We typically offer the defendant to plead guilty, as charged, with at least the minimum punishment," he said.

As a result, the majority of those charged with DUI ultimately enter guilty pleas to the crimes, Bertram said. The few who don't either have a jury decide the case or, rarely, Bertram said, the charges are amended based on evidentiary issues.

"In Taylor County, the conviction rate for DUI charges has been among the highest in the state of Kentucky - consistently in excess of 80 percent," Bertram said.

"This is substantially higher than many counties and is consistent with many of our neighboring counties as well. This conviction rate has remained very steady for several years. Taylor County jurors stand firm on these offenses, which I very much appreciate."

Miller, who prosecutes crimes in circuit court, including DUI cases, said most people charged with DUI in her cases also enter guilty pleas.

In circuit court, Miller said, defendants are often charged with DUI and other felony charges. For example, she said, a defendant might be charged with wanton endangerment, based on a passenger being in the vehicle or if a vehicle is forced off the road because of the impaired driving.

Plea bargains are used in many circuit court cases, Miller said, but rarely with DUI charges. And if the DUI results in someone's death, Miller said, grand jurors can be asked to file assault, manslaughter or murder charges against the defendant as a result.

While Miller's office doesn't handle the bulk of the DUI cases in Taylor County, Miller said she and her assistant commonwealth's attorneys try to handle them appropriately and consistently. Bertram says he and his office staff try to do the same.

"We certainly attempt to treat all persons fairly and consistently," he said.

The number of DUI cases in Taylor County has remained steady over the years, Bertram said, with perhaps a slight increase because of the changing elements a defendant can use to impair their ability to drive.

"Years ago, most cases were alcohol related," Bertram said. "Now, many cases are alcohol, marijuana or controlled substances, or a combination of any of the three."

Taylor Circuit Court Judge Dan Kelly and Taylor District Court Judge Amy Anderson declined to comment for this story, stating that they can't comment on cases that have come before them or could in the future. They also can't discuss how they might rule on a case, they said.

Taylor Circuit Court Judge Allan Bertram nor Taylor District Court Judge Connie Phillips had returned requests for comment at press time.