In Georgia, drivers along U.S. Highway 27 South near Attapulgus may have noticed a new sign recently, around Mile Marker 8.
The sign, which is blue and has a white Georgia map in the center, features the names of two sisters — the late Joy and Jessica Alexander. They were among the five victims of a two-car crash in April 2011.
The Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council’s DUI Memorial Fund offers a program where the next of kin to victims of vehicular homicide, caused by someone driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, can request that the Department of Transportation erect a sign at the crash site. The next of kin must submit an application to the Georgia Crime Victims Compensation Program, and if deemed eligible, the DOT will produce and erect the sign, at no cost to the family member.
Shelia Alexander Sheppard, the mother of the late Joy and Jessica Alexander, applied for the program and was approved. The sign was placed April 12, and will remain there for five years, she said.
“I went and watched them put it up,” she said. “It was hard, but the one thing that makes me feel good is that people will be aware of the dangers of driving under the influence.
“I hope that people will see that sign and think twice about getting behind the wheel when they’re intoxicated. I hope they realize that it takes lives — and it could be your life, or the lives of loved ones.
“I just hope they think before they take that first drink.”
According to the eligibility requirements for the DUI memorial sign program, family members of the person(s) charged with driving under the influence, that caused the accident, are not eligible to place a sign. Also, the DOT is only authorized to place signs on roads that are considered a part of the state highway system.
Raising awareness of the dangers of drunk driving is a great idea. As a DUI defense attorney in Georgia, however, I have mixed feelings about this new program. I have handled many vehicular homicide cases where a DUI charge was involved, both as a prosecutor and as a defense lawyer. Where the evidence is overwhelming and it is clear that the Defendant is responsible for the accident and the life of another through a drunk driving wreck, this program may be a good way to remind people in the community of the dangers of drunk driving. I am somewhat taken aback by the policy that “family members of the person(s) charged with driving under the influence, that caused the accident, are not eligible to place a sign.”
Who makes that decision? The courts? The DOT? A jury of the defendant’s peers? I am reminded of the recent case where my client admitted being under the influence of alcohol, and was arrested and charged with DUI and Vehicular Homicide. It was not until we demanded the State’s file through the discovery process that we learned that the “DUI Victim” also had a blood alcohol concentration of .078 and had marijuana in his system! It is tragic that this man lost his life in the accident, but we also obtained his phone records which revealed that he had tried to call 3 wrecker services because his throttle cable snapped on his motorcycle and he could not go faster than 20 mph. No wrecker had a flatbed to come pick him up so he made the fatal decision to enter the highway while trying to hold his throttle cable together. It was at that point that the collision occurred. Add to that, we discovered he was not wearing a DOT approved helmet – his “helmet” specifically said on the inside “novelty item only, not DOT approved.”
Although this may sound offensive to those who do not work everyday in the criminal justice system and get to see the injustice that often comes into the courtroom, I must ask the question: Will the DOT approve erecting a sign for someone who was falsely accused of committing a crime? The reality of the the criminal justice system as it relates to DUI charges in Georgia and across the nation is that there really is not much of a presumption of innocence anymore. DUI defense lawyers in Georgia routinely have to combat the presumption of guilt in DUI cases not only with juries, but also with laws that many lawyers describe as “the DUI exception to the constitution.” The State of Georgia refuses to provide information to Defendants related to the accuracy of the software in breath testing machines (the source code to the Intoxilyzer 5000); police officers set up roadblocks to catch drunk drivers but refuse to use the video recorders that taxpayer dollars were spent on; roadside “field sobriety tests” have been peer-reviewed by lawyers and scientists in the last decade that demonstrate they are not reliable yet police continue to use them, oftentimes administering them improperly; I could go on. The point is, if you think it is unjust for someone’s life to be cut short because of a drunk driver, consider how unjust it is to fail to recognize that the life of a citizen accused of DUI and Vehicular Homicide is forever changed.
Will the DOT approve a sign that lists the name of someone who has been tried by a jury of his peers and found Not Guilty of DUI and Vehicular Homicide that says:
DUI Laws Victim
I have no intention of interfering with the grieving process of the family and friends of a person who lost their life as the result of a drunk driver who caused the fatality. I sincerely hope that there are more safeguards in place before such a sign is erected than there appears to be in the criminal justice system. I believe in the system. But I also believe that the system would not work but for the hard work and dedication of lawyers who fight everyday to believe in the presumption of innocence and to educate themselves in the law and science that has become so myopic in favor of the guilt of the accused.
I’m not writing that to pay myself or my peers on the back – I’m writing it because I get asked the question frequently – “how do you represent those guilty people?” I don’t represent guilty people, nor do I represent innocent people. I am not concerned with that. I represent the constitutional rights of those charged with DUI and serious crimes such as vehicular homicide. The police don’t get to decide if someone is guilty or innocent either. We do not live in a police state. If I were not out there, fighting everyday for the rights of the accused, we would be living in a police state. Although it takes a little more focus to see, the same way you should thank a soldier for protecting our freedom abroad, you should thank a defense lawyer for protecting our freedom at home. When you look at it closely, I am a law enforcement officer. I protect and enforce the legal rights of those accused of DUI and related crimes. If you are ever asked to sit on a jury, or pass one of these new signs, consider that.