California DAs ‘sound the alarm’ on DUI-related deaths

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Mike Dodson lived an active life — one that included biking thousands of miles of trails, well into his 70s.

The 76-year-old Dodson often pedaled with his local bike club, and was doing just that when an alleged drunk driver struck him last July on Sacramento’s American River Parkway. Dodson died from his injuries three weeks later.

Authorities say the driver, who had a revoked license, was under the influence when he drove onto the bike path at 9 a.m. that day. He now faces murder, gross vehicular manslaughter and hit-and-run charges.

Dodson’s death was among a widespread surge in DUI-related fatalities to occur over the past year, according to nearly a dozen California district attorneys who held an online news conference Wednesday to call attention to the alarming trend.

Their message: As the new year celebration approaches, everyone must do their part to keep alcohol- and drug-impaired drivers off the roadways.

“We are sounding the alarm on a significant increase in the number of DUI fatalities that are occurring on our streets of our state,” said Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, whose office recently experienced a 125-percent boost in case filings involving DUI-related deaths.

Those cases involve charges of vehicular manslaughter as well as murder, the latter in rare but extreme situations where the defendant has a prior DUI conviction and received warnings about the dangers of impaired driving.

Yolo County underwent a similar trend, with the number of deadly DUI cases rising from one in 2020 to five in 2021, the highest in five years’ time.

“This year’s increase is dramatic and noticeable, even for a county of Yolo’s size,” said Melinda Aiello, Yolo County assistant chief deputy district attorney. “These five cases highlight what’s been going on statewide, and demonstrates the need for this outreach campaign.”

“While these numbers may not seem to be extreme compared to larger counties, that doesn’t mean anything to a victim’s family,” Aiello added. Yolo County law enforcement is responding to the problem with increased enforcement, including DUI checkpoints and increased patrols.

Aiello noted that one of Yolo County’s pending cases involved a double fatality — a February collision in West Sacramento that killed the parents of two young children who also were in the vehicle, but survived.

District attorneys from other California counties told similarly grim tales: Two deaths on the same Thanksgiving weekend day in Placer County. In Kern County, more than twice the DUI-related deaths — from 11 to 26 — compared to the year before. A 100-percent increase in repeat DUI offenders in Fresno County in addition to the boost in impaired-driving fatalities.

“Our hearts break with these cases,” said Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire, whose county launched a safety campaign targeting patrons of local bars and restaurants. “These are cases from a prosecutor’s standpoint that you remember more than others. They really leave a lasting impression.”

It was San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan who first called attention to the surge as her jurisdiction recently tallied the most DUI deaths in two decades.

While prior years brought an average of 15 to 20 fatalities, that number soared to 33 in 2020, and again to 37 so far in 2021. The offenders’ average blood-alcohol content also rose on average to 0.18 percent, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08.

Additionally, more than half the arrested drivers displayed a combination of alcohol and drugs in their systems, including marijuana and prescription drugs, “which produce a much higher level of impairment,” Stephan said.

Several of the prosecutors attributed these shifts to the effects of the COVID pandemic, including high stress levels triggering increased drug and alcohol consumption. Some also blamed changes in legislation that lowered consequences for misdemeanor crimes, which include DUIs that don’t result in injuries or deaths.

“It feels like we’re in a time that we have suspended reality, where the rules don’t seem to apply, where people have lost track of their connections,” Stephan said. “Before the holidays, we need to stop this trend. We need to look at each other and be our brother’s keeper, our sister’s keeper.”

“It is going to take all of us to make a change,” added Rhonda Campbell, a victim advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving California, whose 12-year-old sister lost her life in a DUI crash more than four decades ago, “and that pain never goes away.”

DUIs are “100 percent preventable 100 percent of the time,” Campbell said, noting that alcohol-related tragedies can be avoided by taking advantage of ride-share services, public transportation and designated drivers — “and not the least intoxicated person in your group.”

Those hosting parties can play a role by offering nonalcoholic drink options and plenty of snacks, monitoring guests for impairment and, if need be, taking away their keys and have them stay the night.

The Winters Police Department will have additional officers on patrol looking for drivers suspected of being under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs this New Year’s weekend. The extra enforcement effort is in part of a national campaign, Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over, with the goal of stopping suspected impaired drivers who put others on the road at risk.

“When it comes to consuming drugs and/or alcohol and driving, there is a right and wrong choice,” Police Chief John P. Miller said.

Crystal Apilado contributed to this article.

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