A Houston man was sentence to life in prison this past week following his ninth, yes, ninth DUI conviction.
In May of 2015, Donald Middleton, 56, hit a 16-year-old driver head on and subsequently fled to a nearby gas station to hide. The 16-year-old happened to be the son of a Montgomery County Precinct Constable. Middleton was subsequently caught and found to be under the influence of alcohol. Fortunately the teen was not severely harmed as a result of the accident.
During the sentencing hearing, Middleton took the stand and told the court that his drinking problem developed when he was just a freshman in high school after years of being teased and bullied by classmates.
“To me there was no question that we needed to do everything that we could to ensure he wouldn’t be on the roads driving with our friends, our families, our kids on the road putting everyone at risk,” said Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Justin Fowles.
According to court records, Middleton’s first DUI conviction occurred in 1980 when he was only 20 years old. For that conviction, Middleton was sentenced to a $200 fine and 60 days in jail. Since then, Middleton faced DUI charges in 1983, 1992, 1993, twice in 1997, 1999, and 2008. He also faced a possession of crack cocaine charge in 1993.
Notwithstanding Middleton’s prior criminal history, he maintained a valid Texas driver’s license.
The United States Supreme Court has consistently held that to be constitutional a punishment must be proportionate to the crime. Although the definition of proportionality isn’t always clear, when punishments and crimes are compared, some gaping discrepancies become apparent.
In most states, a life sentence is reserved for people who intend to commit egregious and violent offenses; murder, robbery, rape, etc.
There is no question that when a person drinks and drives, there is a risk of death or harm to bystanders. But the vast majority of people who drink and drive do not intend death or harm to anyone and most of the time no one is hurt or killed. People commit other traffic offenses every day that could also lead to death or harm and they too don’t intend on harming or killing anyone, yet they aren’t villainized or punished like DUI offenders. Are we to send a person for life if they have nine tickets for texting and driving?
If we’re punishing DUI offenders for committing non-violent offenses because of the mere possibility that they could harm someone, then there is a very apparent problem with consistency in our sentencing of non-violent crimes.
Texas’s allowance of life sentences for multiple DUI offenders speaks to a larger, and often publically denied, problem of lack of treatment for alcoholism. Whether the public wants to believe it or not, alcoholism is a disease.
Throwing a person in prison for life means giving up on that person. Although that may be an appropriate punishment for some offenses, it seems particularly cruel to me to give life to someone who made a mistake, who did not intend harm, who has a disease, and because their conduct could cause harm.