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Editorial: New Mexico needs tougher DWI penalties

He drank, he drove, he killed three people just outside of Moriarty, and, when all is said and done, he’ll likely only spend nine years in prison.

It’s a stark reminder that life is cheap in New Mexico, and until that changes, New Mexicans will continue to see one DWI tragedy after another.

Caesar Chavez, 52, of Moriarty, pleaded guilty in September to three counts of homicide by vehicle-DWI and one count of causing great bodily harm. He was sentenced last month to 18 years, though with good behavior he’ll only serve half of that.

“I want to say I’m sorry,” Chavez said during the sentencing hearing. “It was an accident. I never had intent to kill anybody. I beg for forgiveness.”

While he may not have set out to kill anyone, he certainly made the decision to drink and get behind the wheel while he was intoxicated. Drinking and driving is the equivalent of firing a loaded shotgun toward a busy street. That shell may not hit anyone, but the callous person who fires that shot shouldn’t be surprised when one of those shells does end up striking and killing someone, or even a family.

Whether Chavez intended to end three lives on April 23, 2016, is irrelevant. The fact is Pablo Caldera-Quezada, his daughter, Jusalet Caldera, 22, and her daughter, 18-month-old Citlaly Alverez Caldera, are still dead. Neither Chavez’s intent, nor his remorse, will buy those three innocent people another day on this earth with their families.

Frankly, spending three years in prison for each of the lives he took seems like a bargain considering the price his three victims paid and the price that their family continues to pay.

To be sure, Chavez’s sentence was in line with what has been imposed on other DWI drivers involved in fatal accidents. Gordon House, who was convicted in a Christmas Eve 1992 DWI crash that killed an Albuquerque mother and her three daughters, served 11 years of a 22-year sentence – which works out to nearly three years per life he took.

Could it be that life being so cheap in New Mexico perpetuates the horrible tragedies that continue to play out here? Then again, someone who consumes alcohol and gets behind the wheel with her 2-year-old in the back seat probably isn’t thinking about the consequences of her actions.

Christie Noriega, 31, of Rio Rancho, is accused of doing just that this month. Sandoval County sheriff’s deputies say she then crashed into a car parked on the shoulder of Interstate 25, hitting two men changing a flat tire outside Algodones.

Killed were 21-year-old Michael Chambellan and 28-year-old Lonnie Escovedo. Escovedo and his fiancee, Benigna Martinez, were on their way from Mora to Las Vegas, Nev., to get married when they had the flat tire. Escovedo called his sister, who showed up to help with Chambellan, her boyfriend. Chambellan had been a wrestler as a student at Sandia High, and he had a reputation as someone who was always there to help others.

Prior to the crash, at least two people called Sandoval County Dispatch to report a drunken driver traveling south on I-25. Another couple watched as Noriega swiped the side of the car at “80-plus.”

Noriega, who, according to a court document smelled of alcohol and had slurred speech and bloodshot, watery eyes, told deputies she had not drunk any alcohol and didn’t remember the crash. She was booked into the Sandoval County Detention Center on two counts of DWI-related homicide by vehicle, DWI-second offense, and child abuse.

“They didn’t deserve what happened to them, at all,” Martinez said of her fiance and the other man killed. No, they didn’t. And they don’t deserve for the person who took their lives to serve less than three years per life should she be found guilty in this case.

Lawmakers need to toughen up DWI penalties in this state.

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.