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Driving Drunk Till the Bitter End

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Those who battle drunk driving can point to a mountain of statistics to chart their successes in the past decade. But to see the work that remains, they need only look at the bulging case files of Fernando Quezada Perez and Steven Edward Schumacher.

The pair have five drunk-driving convictions between them, and each now faces a relatively rare murder charge stemming from crashes that killed a total of three people in Santa Ana and Fountain Valley in the past month.

Records show that each repeatedly ignored court-ordered penalties and programs meant to break their habits, and three deaths may be the price of those failures.

To many, the two cases show that while anti-drunk-driving campaigns and stiffer punishments have taught casual drinkers to think twice, there still remains a hard-core population of repeat offenders who defy the law and the odds.

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“Two, three, four times . . . how many chances do these people get?” asked Reidel Post, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Orange County. “Some individuals just plain, flat-out aren’t going to change. And we as a community need to figure out what we’re going to do to keep them from behind the wheel.”

Post and others are pushing state legislators to pass a law that would allow courts to seize the cars of some repeat drunk drivers. Those activists also are pushing for changes to court-ordered counseling programs, which they say are fine for first-time offenders but can fall short in dealing with habitual drunk drivers.

Both Perez and Schumacher repeatedly were ordered into the counseling programs, and both routinely flunked out because of absences and failing drug and alcohol screenings, records show. Both were given several county jail sentences, typically of a few weeks or, in one case, 120 days, records show.

Perez, 27, of Santa Ana, is charged with murder for an April 6 collision at Flower Street and Wilshire Avenue that killed two youngsters. Perez was driving with a suspended license and told police he was on his way to buy beer when the crash occurred, killing Sonia Ruiz, 14, and Ruben Quiroga, 4, police said.

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Perez’s blood-alcohol level was .20%, more than twice the legal limit of .08%, according to police. In two of Perez’s three earlier drunk-driving convictions, court records show, he tested at .23% and .25%.

Police say Schumacher, 38, of Fountain Valley, ran a red light at Ellis Avenue and Bushard Street on March 25 and slammed into a Honda, killing Roberto Ferrer, a 22-year-old passenger in the car.

Schumacher also was driving with a suspended license. And records show that in recent years he had been expelled at least four times from court-ordered counseling programs, once because he arrived at a session under the influence of alcohol.

In a third case, Danny David Ornelas, 26, of Huntington Beach, was found guilty by a Municipal Court jury Friday of drag-racing through a Newport Beach neighborhood with an open case of beer on the passenger seat. Ornelas was a familiar face to local police: In 1988, he was convicted of vehicular manslaughter for plowing into pedestrian Debbie Killelea, killing the 37-year-old mother of three.

Ornelas served about three years in prison for the 1988 offense. For the new conviction, he faces a maximum of six months in jail, a $2,700 fine and a six-month license suspension.

Although she wouldn’t discuss any specific cases, Orange County Municipal Judge Pamela L. Iles said that through the years she has seen a steady parade of repeat offenders, the “major jerk drivers,” who appear unwilling to change.

“I just get disheartened by it,” Iles said. “They just don’t get it, and I wonder if some of them ever will. It’s like they’re waving a loaded gun, endangering all of us.”

And, like a violent offender, the drunk drivers should have their weapons confiscated, Iles contends. She testified Tuesday before lawmakers in Sacramento to encourage them to pass the vehicle seizure penalty for repeat offenders.

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A state law that went into effect last year already allows authorities to seize the cars of people twice caught driving with a suspended or revoked license.

In Orange County, however, budget and staffing constraints have prevented prosecutors from doing that. But the situation will change in upcoming months, according to Brent Romney, director of Municipal Court operations for the district attorney.

“We’re now able to hire a few more attorneys and we’ll start pursuing those forfeitures for suspended licenses,” Romney said. “And repeat DUI offenders are just as dangerous, if not more so, so we would pursue those vigorously, also.”

Romney said taking cars away from hard-core offenders might hammer home lessons that aren’t learned by short jail sentences. Often, jail overcrowding leads to the early release of drunk drivers and other nonviolent inmates, a situation that frustrates prosecutors, judges and police, Romney said.

If Orange County could expand its jails, Romney said, drunk drivers might be serving full sentences and learning hard lessons.

“A year imprisoned is not a pleasant experience,” Romney said. “And it might, for some of these offenders, teach them to change their behavior. They are offered a chance to rehabilitate. If they show they are unwilling or unable to do that, then it’s time for society to think about protecting itself . . . by incarcerating these people.”

Drunk driving is a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail, a fine up to $1,000 and a six-month driver’s license suspension, penalties that can grow steeper with repeat offenses. If someone is convicted of a fourth DUI in seven years, the crime is bumped up to a felony and the penalties are two to four years in prison, fines up to $5,000 and license revocation.

The charges can grow more severe if the crash results in loss of life, such as manslaughter and, in some rare cases, second-degree murder. The state Supreme Court ruled in 1981 that the charge could apply, but prosecutors must show the defendant knew the risks and had a “conscious disregard” for human life. Only two or three Orange County drivers each year face such a charge, which can carry a sentence of 15 years to life, prosecutors say.

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In 1994, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 2,855 alcohol-related traffic injuries in Orange County. That number had declined each year since 1988, according to the California Highway Patrol.

Orange County deaths attributed to alcohol-related crashes totaled 55 in 1994, down from 76 in 1993, the CHP reports.

But while the human toll has declined significantly, drunk-driving arrests increased. They totaled 15,659 in the county in 1994, up from 15,504 in 1993, according to the California Department of Justice.

One number that hasn’t changed is the recidivism rate for drunk driving, which remains above 30%, according to counselor Jim Brierly. Brierly is vice president of the Academy of Defensive Driving, the largest program that counsels the county’s court-referred first-time offenders.

“The biggest problem is that the programs, by state mandate, are one size fits all,” said Brierly, a recovering alcoholic who in the 1970s and early ‘80s had six drunk-driving offenses. “You can be on your ninth DUI and still be sent into the same program.”

The system should screen and assess drunk drivers and have a range of treatment, including programs as intense as residential incarceration, Brierly argues. Nothing short of that will dissuade hard-core drunk drivers, he said.

“They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink,” Brierly said. “But I’ll tell you, if you put their head underwater for a while, it’ll do something.”

Huntington Beach Police Officer Mike Christ, who often works the night shift, said a fair number of the drunk drivers he arrests are repeat offenders.

“It’s just frustrating. I’ll arrest someone, and then a week later at the beginning of my shift I’ll see that same car parked in front of a bar. Four hours later it’ll still be there, and then at the end of the shift it’ll be gone. I always wonder, ‘Did they make it home?’ ”

Christ said society needs to overcome the perception that drunk driving is more a lapse in judgment than a crime.

“The way I see it, it’s no different than assault with a deadly weapon,” Christ said. “The weapon is 5,000 pounds of steel.”


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