Special Report: Repeat DWI offenders able to get back on La. roadways

Special Report: Repeat DWI offenders able to get back on La. roadways
(Source: WAFB)
(Source: WAFB)
(Source: WAFB)
(Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's been seen time and time again. Sometimes repeat DWI offenders are able to get back on Louisiana roadways. It's an unfortunate reality, and even more shocking, some are able to avoid time behind bars.

It has been almost 13 years, but Pat Minor said it feels like yesterday her husband Leslie Minor was riding his motorcycle along LA 1 when he was hit by a drunk driver. He was killed instantly.

"It shattered my world," Pat Minor said. "When I have to go back to that day it just puts me right back to that scene."

Minor said what is worse than losing the man she shared her life with is feeling like his death was 100 percent preventable.

"The seven-time repeat offender that killed him, he didn't even stop to see if he could help him. He just fled the scene and never went back to see if he could help him," Minor said.

At the time of the crash, Lee Swarner had never faced any serious jail time despite multiple DWI arrests.

In 1984, Swarner was charged with first offense DWI in West Baton Rouge Parish and was sentenced to 5 months in jail and one year probation. In 1985 on his second offense, Swarner was sentenced to two months in jail and 30 days of community service.

By 2003, Swarner had been arrested and convicted four times for DWI, but somehow he was still able to get behind the wheel.

"Nothing's done until somebody gets killed and then they want to rehabilitate them or send them to drug court or you know try to get them some help when it's just too late," Minor said.

Melba Williams said drunk driving is a serious problem and she wants to see laws strengthened. Her daughter Amber Roussel, a Baton Rouge native, was killed four years ago in Beaumont, Texas by a three-time DWI offender. The 31-year-old left behind three small children.

"Each day has its own horror and you see the offenders get to go home when they're done and see their children and they do it again and again," Williams said.

Williams believes it is as if the laws are meant to protect offenders rather than hold them accountable for their actions.

"Judges and district attorneys need to think about this," Williams said. "These multiple offenders out here, there's no excuse for that. Absolutely none."

According to Louisiana's DWI laws, a first-time offender could face a minimum of two days to six months in jail. On a second offense, 30 days to six months. Usually offenders will not spend more than a year behind bars until they have been given multiple chances.

A three-time offender could face one to five years in jail, and a four-time offender could spend anywhere from 10 to 30 years behind bars.

East Baton Rouge District Attorney Hillar Moore said sentences are at the discretion of the presiding judge in DWI cases. The problem is that a person can be arrested for DWI several times but without a conviction, the penalty will not be as severe.

"That's correct. We cannot hold the arrest against you as a basis for enhanced conviction," Moore said.

Moore also said it is rare that an offender will face jail time even when convicted on a first offense. In some cases, time behind bars can be substituted for community service or participation in court-appointed substance abuse programs.

Scottie: So if you do all those things, essentially you could be back on the roads in six months? 

"Correct. You would have a deferred sentence and at the end of that period of time the court can withdraw your guilty plea and you'll actually be found not guilty at that point," Moore said.

Minor said the loophole is unacceptable. She believes if first-time offenses were taken more seriously her husband might still be alive.

"Right there in the courtroom when they're before the judge, I think that they should be given jail time to think about what they've done," she said.

Scottie: On the first offense? 

"Yes, absolutely," Minor said.

Scottie: Do you feel like the legal system failed you? 

"I do. I really do because I feel like if he had a conviction in April of 2003, why is he on the road in July and kills my husband? So I do. I feel like the system really did fail me in this case," Minor added.

Moore said the goal is to hand out appropriate sentences in all cases. He believes the court systems statewide could benefit from a more unified way to track DWI offenses so that judges have all relevant information when DWI cases are adjudicated.

Copyright 2016 WAFB. All rights reserved.