When police arrived at the crash scene, two cars were in flames, a 4-year-old boy lay paralyzed, and a mother stood accused of crippling her son because she drove drunk.
A mother with two kids in the back of her 2002 Saab 95 had rear-ended a Volkswagen Golf along rural Route 22A in the town of Orwell, shortly after sunset on September 18. The impact sent both cars careening over the center line and into a roadside ditch. Upon impact, the cars caught fire.
Two firefighters who heard the crash from inside their house ran to the scene and pulled the woman and her two young children from the smoldering wreckage. The mother had a broken leg. The 1-year-old, Matthew, was black and blue. The 4-year-old, Maxwell, was critically injured. His spine was severed, paralyzing the boy from the chest down.
The mother refused to be tested for intoxication but would later tell her probation officer she’d been drinking that day. The hotel room she had occupied earlier was “littered with beer cans,” according to a relative.
Heather M. Carpentier, a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom from Hinesburg, has become the latest poster child for a deadly scourge plaguing Vermont’s roads.
On any given day, untold numbers of drunk drivers barrel down interstates and country highways. Many go undetected. Thousands are arrested, pay fines and temporarily lose their licenses. And every year, a dozen or two, like Carpentier, end up killing or maiming themselves or others in horrific accidents. Those responsible are often facing their second, third or even fourth DUI offense.
The worst crashes are burned into Vermont’s psyche. In one infamous case from 2007, a drunk driver on parole for his third DUI drove the wrong way on I-89, killing 18-year-old Nick Fournier in a head-on collision.
Last year, three-time DUI offender Eric Russell plowed head-on into a car on South Main Street in Barre, shattering the driver’s femur and sending his three kids to the hospital. Russell’s blood-alcohol content was nearly three times the legal limit.
Carpentier had been busted for DUI five months before the fiery wreck that left her son paralyzed. She was driving with a suspended license.
Vermont is on the higher side of drunk-driving rates compared to other states, and exceeds the national average for the percentage of fatal crashes that are alcohol-related.
Yet it’s one of only three states — along with Alabama and South Dakota — that do not allow ignition interlock devices as a way of punishing drunk drivers. The interlock resembles a breathalyzer and hooks to a car’s ignition so it can’t be started unless the person blowing into it is sober. Today the ignition interlock is one of the most commonly used, and arguably most effective, deterrents out there.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving — aka M.A.D.D. — are big fans of the device, which cost between $75 and $150 to install, and $60 to $80 a month to maintain. That amounts to less than $3 a day — an expense most states pass on to the defendant. As the M.A.D.D. website points out, that’s “less than the cost of a drink.”
Vermont has gone to great lengths to deter habitual drunk driving. A recent state Supreme Court ruling essentially granted Vermont cops the right to administer sobriety tests until the suspected drunken driver fails one (see sidebar). A first-time offender automatically loses his or her driver’s license for three months — six months if the motor vehicle operator refuses to submit to a breathalyzer test. A second conviction brings an automatic 18-month license suspension.
Many states — especially rural ones, with limited public transportation — allow for a “hardship” license that lets DUI offenders drive during certain hours to get to a job. Vermont isn’t one of them.
Prior DUIs never “go away” here — only a governor’s pardon can expunge the charge. Plus, convicted drivers are required to carry high-risk car insurance, which can run $150 a month on top of regular insurance.
By some measures, the system is working: An estimated 80 percent of first-time drunk drivers in Vermont do not reoffend, according to Frank Twarog, a Burlington-based attorney and president of the Vermont Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Twarog’s knowledge of state DUI law is encyclopedic, and he puts it to use every day defending drunk-driving suspects in courtrooms in Chittenden, Franklin and Washington counties.
A dapper, soft-spoken lawyer whose Grateful Dead screensaver belies his Ivy League appearance, Twarog uses poster-board flow charts to describe how DataMaster breathalyzer machines work, and draws squiggly bell curves on a bar graph to illustrate how a chemist “relates back,” the process by which breath-test samples are analyzed to calculate whether the driver was over the limit at the time of operation.
Twarog’s clients range from the careless drunks who drive home after one too many at the local pub, to habitual offenders facing their fourth or fifth DUI. It’s that second group — the 20 percent who drive drunk again — that troubles him and every other thinking person who gets behind a wheel in Vermont. Twarog is the first to admit that the punishments designed to keep drunk drivers from reoffending aren’t working.
“We think we’re keeping dangerous drivers off the road, but they’re still driving,” he says. “They’re just doing it illegally, with a suspended license.”
Twarog believes that a simple hardship license, also known as a Cinderella license, could reduce the number of drunk drivers in Vermont if used in combination with the interlocks: To get a hardship license, the reasoning goes, an offender would have to install an interlock on his or her car. That would reduce the number of people caught in what Twarog calls “the vortex” — they lose their license, drive without it, get caught, and the process repeats itself.
Interlock systems have come a long way since the days when a serial drunk could cheat the device simply by having someone else blow into it. Today’s sensors often require a driver to continuously blow sober breaths to keep the engine going.
Nissan is reportedly testing several next-generation interlock systems, among them small cameras that observe facial expressions, sensors that detect blood alcohol concentration through the steering wheel and gear shift, and internal computers that know when a car is weaving.
Eleven states slap ignition interlocks on drivers as a result of their first DUI conviction, no matter what their blood alcohol concentration. Eight others, including New Hampshire, mandate them when first-time offenders have more than .15 blood-alcohol content. The remaining states require the devices for repeat offenders, or at the discretion of the sentencing authority.
Two interlock-ignition bills came before the 2009 Vermont legislature, but both were marooned in committees without so much as a public hearing.
Relative to laws in other states, neither bill had the sharpest teeth. One would have mandated interlocks only after a second DUI offense. The other would have made them voluntary, but a driver who wanted to shorten suspension time would have to get the interlock.
One of the House bill’s sponsors, State Rep. Bill Lippert, insists the legislature is not averse to the idea; it just hasn’t been a high priority. DUI law wasn’t addressed, he says, because lawmakers were consumed with overhauling sex-offender statutes in response to the highly publicized murder of Brooke Bennett, the 12-year-old from Randolph allegedly slain by her sex-offender uncle. Lippert expects to take up the bill again in 2010.
The reason it targeted only repeat offenders is that four out of five drunk drivers in Vermont never get caught a second time, Lippert explains. He didn’t want to make a tough drunk-driving law “just to make a point.
“I’m looking for a targeted intervention for those who are likely to have multiple DUI offenses,” says Lippert. “These are people we need to get off the road, and I think the ignition interlock may be the next tool.”
How do drunk drivers end up back on the road? The short answer: It’s virtually impossible to know which first-time offenders will become dangerous repeat offenders. That’s why groups such as M.A.D.D. push for mandatory interlocks for all first-time offenders. The democratic device removes the guesswork.
“You can never predict the future,” says Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan. “We don’t have the capacity to put everybody in jail, nor should we be putting everybody in jail.”
Carpentier wasn’t a habitual DUI offender. She started spiraling out of control last April, quickly racking up numerous arrests, all related to an apparent alcohol problem.
She was picked up on April 29 in South Burlington on a DUI after her boyfriend called 911 to report she’d left the house intoxicated. She told police she’d had three Budweisers.
Two weeks later, she was charged with aggravated domestic assault after whacking her boyfriend in the face with a clothes iron during a drunken fight. Then, in July, she was arrested for disorderly conduct for hurling things inside a friend’s house in another drunken fit.
Chittenden County prosecutors reduced the aggravated assault charge to simple assault, and cut a plea deal on the DUI and disorderly conduct charge that let Carpentier avoid jail time, in exchange for mandatory alcohol treatment and community service.
Carpentier was ordered not to buy or consume alcohol. Additionally, her license was yanked for 90 days and she was ordered to report to the Hinesburg Police Department weekdays to take breathalyzer tests.
She completed an inpatient stint at Maple Leaf Farms rehab center, and there were no indications she had driven since her license was suspended on June 10.
Donovan says Carpentier, like every first-time DUI offender, was evaluated for risk factors prior to the plea offer. In Carpentier’s case, she had no prior DUIs, no criminal record, she wasn’t driving recklessly, there was no accident and her blood-alcohol content, while illegal, wasn’t sky-high.
Conditions of release are designed to do three things, Donovan says: Punish the offender, address the underlying cause — in this case, alcohol abuse — and provide treatment for rehabilitation. Carpentier’s sentence did all three of those, Donovan says.
“These are the cases, when you hear about something as tragic as this, that you wake up in the middle of the night thinking about,” Donovan says.
Could interlocks have prevented this particular tragedy? It’s hard to say.
In states with mandatory ignition-lock laws, drunk drivers were far less likely to re-offend while the interlock was installed on their car. But when the devices came off, the rates of recidivism skyrocketed, suggesting they aren’t necessarily a permanent solution to the problem.
Courts have had trouble mandating them, too, when defendants don’t have a vehicle or can’t pay the cost. Indiana solved that problem by offering an alternative even less pleasant than interlocks: house arrest. Given the choice between those two, interlock compliance shot up significantly.
“No law can guarantee people aren’t going to do something stupid,” says Vince Illuzzi, a state’s attorney from Essex County and a Republican state senator who co-sponsored the Senate interlock-ignition bill. “But it’s another safeguard that can be put into place to avoid these tragic situations.”
Carpentier bought a new car between her first and second DUI. Had the interlock been installed in the new vehicle, it seems unlikely her car would have started that night.
After the crash, a relative went to the hotel room where Carpentier had been staying with her kids, to gather their belongings. The room’s floor was littered with beer cans, according to Michelle LaRock, the aunt of Maxwell’s father. At the bottom of Carpentier’s suitcase were two more unopened Budweisers, LaRock says.
“This never should have happened to a 4-year-old,” LaRock laments.
Carpentier’s Facebook page is plastered with pictures of her two cute kids — Maxwell riding horses and kiddie rides at the recent Champlain Valley Expo, and Matthew surrounded by smiling guests at his first birthday party.
But there’s a foreboding post on her Facebook page from September 8, when Carpentier took the quiz entitled, “How likely are you to go to jail?”
Her result: 91 percent likely.
Based on her answers, the automated quiz program shot back, Magic 8-Ball style, “You really know how to anger those cops! Not to mention the judge. You will be seeing at least 50 to 60 years in prison for your heinous crimes!”
Cops don’t need much to arrest you for suspicion of DUI — an odor of booze, a slurred word, the seemingly catch-all “bloodshot, watery eyes.” Proving the stop was legal is another matter.
Police nail drunk drivers with breath tests all the time, but sometimes they’re forced to toss the evidence because it was obtained improperly. Lawyers wrestle over the legality of DUI stops every day in district courtrooms. Every so often, an arrest is questionable enough to warrant review by the Vermont Supreme Court.
On September 18, the same day Heather Carpentier’s son Maxwell was paralyzed in the fiery crash, the state’s highest court issued a ruling on a low-profile DUI case. The decision reinforces the powers police have to demand drivers suspected of being intoxicated take a breathalyzer — even after the driver has already passed sobriety tests.
The background of the case is this: Epeli Mara was driving in Burlington at 12:42 a.m. on May 2, 2008, when state police pulled him over for a cracked taillight. The trooper did not observe erratic driving or have reason to think the driver was intoxicated, but when the window opened, he smelled alcohol and observed Mara’s eyes were “watery and bloodshot.”
Mara told the trooper he had consumed 24 ounces of beer between 4 and 6 p.m. that evening. Mara’s speech was normal and he answered questions without a problem. Nonetheless, the trooper ordered Mara out of the car for field sobriety tests. Mara passed with flying colors the “walk and turn” test and the “one-leg stand” test, but failed the HGN (horizontal gaze nystagmus) test. In that test, an officer instructs a driver to look straight ahead, then moves his finger back and forth, watching for quivering in the driver’s eyes that would indicate intoxication. Based on that, Mara was asked to take a preliminary breath test. Mara agreed and blew a .102, over the legal limit. Back at the station, Mara blew again into the DataMaster breathalyzer, registering a blood alcohol concentraiton of .107. He was arrested for driving under the influence.
Mara’s lawyers moved to suppress the evidence against him, arguing that having passed the “walk and turn” and “one-leg stand” tests, police had no reasonable grounds to suspect that he was intoxicated. At that point, the lawyers argued, police should have aborted all sobriety tests and let Mara go.
A district court judge agreed and dismissed both the civil and criminal case against Mara. “The encounter ... should have ended” before Mara was given the breathalyzer, the court ruled.
The Supreme Court reversed that ruling in a seven-page decision. The justices point out previous rulings that concluded external signs of drunkenness are not required for an officer to have reasonable suspicion of DUI and order a breathalyzer. To hold otherwise, the Supreme Court reasoned, would “reward the experienced drinker who consumes excessive amounts of intoxicants without obvious physical impairment.”
Vermont Defender General Matthew Valerio, who defended Mara before the high court, says the ruling doesn’t necessarily break new legal ground but does reinforce the leeway granted to police in DUI stops.
“To the extent someone wants to say anything is new here, it might be saying it doesn’t take a heck of a lot for an officer to ask you to do more testing,” Valerio says.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Road Worriers"