No justice to be found in DWI jail time

The Baltimore Sun

Jason Bukovsky was a 32-year-old Columbia resident, owner of a 2000 Jeep Wrangler and, one Saturday afternoon last December, just before Christmas, so incredibly drunk he is lucky to be alive. Still, Bukovsky drove his Wrangler south on Aviation Boulevard in Glen Burnie, drifted off to the right, struck a guardrail, cut back sharply and slammed into a Honda Accord, killing its driver, 53-year-old Soon Youn Livingston. About an hour after the accident, Bukovsky's blood-alcohol level registered 0.39 percent, nearly five times what the state considers drunk.

His sentence? Ten years, but with all but 18 months suspended, and the judge in the case, Paul Hackner of the Anne Arundel County Circuit Court, gave Bukovsky credit for having spent five months on house arrest. In my math, that means Bukovsky will spend a little more than a year in prison for his homicidal negligence.

"The devastation he's caused is just unfathomable," Hackner remarked in court last month, a statement discordant with his sentence.

Soon Youn Livingston was a missionary whose husband called her "the focal point of our family, an irreplaceable asset for her courage and faith." Her 16-year-old son was in the Honda with her. The boy survived the crash, though you have to wonder whether a kid ever really "survives" such a horrific experience.

So, "devastation ... unfathomable," a 0.39 blood-alcohol percentage - and about a year in prison?

Hackner also ordered Bukovsky to pay $9,000 in restitution to the victim's husband, serve five years of supervised probation and perform 50 hours of community service.

Still, given the consequences of his drunkenness, you can't help but think that Bukovsky got off easy - that the punishment doesn't meet the crime, or that it certainly fails to meet anyone's concept of effective deterrent. What's the message in this?

While there's a general belief that a nearly 30-year-old crusade against drunken driving has stiffened judicial spines everywhere, there still seem to be instances of perplexing leniency - and a few other cases where sentences were relatively extreme. What I've observed over the years, particularly within the last, is sentencing all over the map.

Many drunken-driving cases in Maryland end in plea bargains, with widely disparate sentences influenced by all kinds of factors - judges considering the lives of the victims and the lives of the drunks, and the drunks usually regarded as just average citizens who make mistakes that leave them with scars of guilt for the rest of their lives. Even the families of victims sometimes see it that way.

In May 2007, a 23-year-old guy named Patrick Britton-Harr admitted guilt in a high-speed drunken-driving crash that killed his passenger, a Naval Academy midshipman.

The driver's blood-alcohol level was 0.17 percent, twice the legal limit. He received a five-year jail sentence - with all but nine months suspended - from Anne Arundel Circuit Judge Joseph Manck. "We don't believe confinement is going to take away the hurt or the sadness that is in this room," a friend of both defendant and victim told the judge.

In Baltimore, a former Johns Hopkins pathologist named Todd Sheridan faced charges of automobile manslaughter and driving under the influence for causing a head-on collision on the JFX in July 2006. A 22-year-old woman later died of injuries from the crash. Again, the case went to plea bargaining - in part because the victim's family believed improper treatment by a hospital, and not the accident itself, had caused her death.

Sheridan pleaded guilty, and Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Robert Kershaw sentenced him to 10 years' imprisonment, suspending all but three. After one year, the doctor could get a sentence modification to supervised probation.

Again, a mild sentence for deadly drunken-driving and, again, the result of negotiations to avoid a trial.

This is the way it is.

Except when it's not.

In my observations of court cases, I found only a couple of full 10-year sentences in a traffic death. One was in Baltimore County - that horrible dragging death of a child in a stroller on Loch Raven Boulevard. In Towson, Judge John Hennegan sentenced the defendant, Lazara Arellano de Hogue, to a hard 10 - with none of the time suspended. Arellano de Hogue was not drunk, had a valid driver's license and was a legal resident of the United States.

The other 10-year sentence stemmed from a tragedy during Thanksgiving weekend two years ago involving another defendant with a Spanish surname. He was drunk and slammed his car into another near Columbia, killing a 21-year-old Marine corporal and his date. The drunk in this case had a .32 blood-alcohol level - four times the state's legal limit.

When this case got to court in May, the presiding Howard County Circuit Court judge, Louis Becker, noted that the defendant was an illegal immigrant from Mexico: "This court cannot ignore that the defendant has violated the law with his illegal presence here."

He then gave 27-year-old Eduardo Morales-Soriano a 10-year jail sentence - none of it suspended. That exceeded the sentencing guidelines for a defendant with no previous criminal and traffic convictions. (The Baltimore Sun reported at the time that, under the guidelines, the sentence should have been three months to four years for each manslaughter count. Judges can impose sentences based on the guidelines but are not required to.)

The parents of the Marine corporal, a veteran of the Iraq war, didn't think 10 years was sufficient. His mother said her son "fought for the system, and it failed him."

It's understandable that victims' kin would feel that way, though this was a rare case of justice pressing a heavy hand. In an Anne Arundel case in February, the sentence was five years for a drunken driver who killed three dialysis patients in a van.

Justice all over the map.

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