Erie Co: tough enough on drunk drivers?

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Drunk drivers arrested for sometime deadly crashes sometimes are facing their second, third, or fourth conviction of getting behind the wheel inebriated. Is Erie County tough enough on drunk drivers or are they getting off easy?

Charles Elberson has been wondering that ever since his 26-year-old daughter, Jocelyn, was killed by motorcycle driver 53-year-old David Smith on the Amherst bike path. Smith admitted he was drunk when he hit and killed Jocelyn and 81-year-old Sheila Pelton. It was Smith's fifth DWI.

"My God, I never thought that this would happen to me, or my wife, and my family and it does. Then when you hear that this person has done this multiple times, you just ask yourself, why?" Elberson wondered.

WEB EXTRA | Watch Emily Guggenmos' full 8-minute interview with Charless Elberson

John Sullivan with Erie County Stop DWI says they're seeing more people with drinking problems on the road.

"People who are struggling with alcohol, or controlling their consumption of alcohol, or do it on a regular basis are becoming more and more of the people we see being arrested," said Sullivan.

Each year, Erie County sees 3,500 DWI arrests. Around 1,000 of those are repeat offenders.

"It's also bad because those people cause a lot of crashes," said Sullivan.

In Erie County, many drunk driving suspects receive a plea bargain for a lesser charge. But District Attoney Frank Sedita contends he is tough on drunk drivers, arguing he doesn't offer plea bargains if the person has been arrested for DWI before, caused a car accident, or had a BAC over .13 percent.

The county rates 40 out of the 62 counties in the state in convicting drunk drivers on their original DWI charge.

"Forty-two percent of the people that are charged with DWI are actually convicted of DWI. The rest are either dismissed or convicted of the lesser charge of driving while impaired," Sullivan said.

Chautauqua and Niagara Counties fall even lower in the 30 percent range. Meanwhile, Ontario County has a 92 percent conviction rate.

New 4 contacted Dru Malavase, the Stop DWI coordinator for Ontario County, to see what they're doing differently.

"We are very tough on first time offenders here in this county. We have a district attorney's office that has a very strict non-pleading down policy," said Malavase.

Over the past 30 years, Malavase has seen the number of repeat offenders cut in half, along with the number of crashes and fatalities. The county only sees one or two DWI fatalities a year.

"If you don't intervene after the first offense, the chances are unfortunately quite high that the person is going to be re-arrested," Malavase said.

In Erie County, Sullivan says there are things that are working to cut down on DWIs, like the installation of ignition interlock devices in offender's cars.

"It's a device that doesn't allow a person to start a vehicle if they have alcohol in their system," he explained.

President of D&R Automotive Restylers, Dennis Snyder, added, "It will re-test you in the course of driving, after usually several minutes into your drive. It will let you know that it wants you to test again."

Sullivan says the biggest hurdle is the punishment offenders receive.

"There's supposed to be swift and sure punishment, it's proportional to the danger that they provide on the road and so it should be more severe. If it were applied more upfront we would see fewer and fewer repeat offenders," said Sullivan.

It should be said, Ontario County is much smaller than Erie County and therefore can't be treated the same.

"Some of it is practical. We have to manage the courts. We can't have 3,500 trials in a year - we just simply would not be able to do it," Sullivan noted.

Despite having many more cases, Malavase thinks Erie County prosecutors and judges can get tougher on drunk drivers.

"If you can just keep chipping away at it, it makes a huge difference," said Malavase.

But any difference made now would be too late for some families, who are now hoping something will be done to save others from the pain they feel.

"It's wiped out, it's gone, taken from them because someone chose to drink and put themselves behind a vehicle," said Elberson.

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