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Editorial: NM needs to get tougher on repeat DWI offenders

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Despite tougher DWI laws and initiatives enacted over the past decade or so, we still have drivers eluding the long arm of the law.

Repeatedly.

Take the case of Celestino Centeno, arrested recently on his 13th DWI after he backed out of a driveway and slammed into a curb. Centeno denied drinking but had “alcohol emitting from his breath, thick speech and bloodshot watery eyes,” according to a criminal complaint.

Luckily, he didn’t hurt or kill someone, which far too often happens in New Mexico when alleged drunken drivers decide to go for a spin.

How does someone rack up 13 DWIs – six resulting in convictions – and still drive? Clearly Centeno didn’t learn from the first 12 offenses, or did he? Did he learn that it’s still OK to drive under the influence as long as you don’t get caught? Or that if you work the system, you can avoid the consequences? Apparently he did learn to refuse a field sobriety test. After all, what’s an aggravated DWI once you hit double digits?

There are roadblocks on the highway to conviction: trial dates that are moving targets, court no-shows by police officers and prosecutors, byzantine record-keeping systems loaded with loopholes and a reluctance of some judges to throw the book at offenders.

New Mexico has made progress in bringing down the number of DWI crash deaths. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, that number has dropped from the nation’s seventh highest in 2002 and 46 percent above the national average to 13th in 2010 and 27 percent higher than the national average. Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that since the interlock law was passed in 2005, drunken driving deaths have decreased by 33 percent.

Yet New Mexico still has an abysmal record when it comes to DWI convictions and career offenders.

If you are arrested in New Mexico on suspicion of DWI, and your breath test is at or above the legal limit or you refuse the test, your driver’s license is revoked for up to a year. If you are found guilty of DWI for the first time, you face stiff fines and court costs, jail time, treatment and an ignition interlock slapped on your vehicle. Penalties get stiffer the more you re-offend.

This year, they could have become even more stringent, but state lawmakers declined to count DWI convictions toward habitual offender sentences, toughen requirements for removing ignition interlocks and increase penalties for repeat offenders.

These measures should get another look in the 2015 Legislature; as Celestino Centeno’s 13th arrest shows, New Mexico hasn’t put the brakes on repeat DWIs.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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