FORT WAYNE - This week, a New Haven man was charged with killing someone while driving drunk. NewsChannel 15 then uncovered that the man, Jeremy Hoerger, was guilty of drunk driving three times before this.
This finding led us to a bigger question of "what's being done to keep habitual driving offenders off the road?" and conversations with a prosecutor, police officer, and psychologist. They all expressed that it was extremely hard to stop habitual offenders completely.
"If the individual is going to drive whether they're suspended or not, they're going to drive and that's where the frustration comes into play because we can't take their car away," said Fort Wayne Police Department Lieutenant Tony Maze. "We can take their license away but we can't take their car away and we can't take every car that they may have access to away from them to make sure that they're not driving."
He said there's not much more law enforcement can do than just continually arrest them. Then explained that they rely on the courts to make the greater change.
Adams County Prosecutor Jeremy Brown said his office is more than aware of the problem and it's dangers.
"In cases of habitual offenders, I think that it's important that we take even more aggressive steps to incarcerate and make sure the community knows that we take this seriously," he said. "Because people that have accumulated multiple OWI convictions tend to pose a risk even after they're done with the sentence and the underlying criminal case. Unfortunately, their behavior may not change and they continue to drink and drive and be a danger. "
Brown explained that in Northeast Indiana, prosecutors often seek jail time for first time DUI offenders even if they have no prior history. This could be around six to ten days depending on the circumstances. It could be much more or even less.
If the person has two or three prior DUI convictions, then they can declare them as a Habitual Vehicular Substance Offender (HVSO), which enhances their jail sentence by one to eight years.
The Bureau of Motor Vehicles has the ability to mark Habitual Traffic Violators and suspend driver's licenses. To factors to attaining this status vary, but it is often a combination one major and some minor violations or the sum of committing several major violations.
Habitual Traffic Drivers are committing felonies if they drive. They may only operate a vehicle if granted special driving privileges to places such as work. In these cases, prosecutors may require the suspended drivers to put ignition interlock devices into their car. The driver has to blow into it and pass a blood alcohol level test before the car will start.
Lastly, Adams explained they're constantly creating public awareness of the dangers of driving while impaired. Several times a year they join police forces for "Operation Pullover Blitz" to target drunk driving on the road. The state provides money to agencies to pay officers overtime to work DUI checkpoints.
Adams concluded by saying prosecutors always try their best, but can't stop the habitual driving offender problem completely.
"We try to be as effective as we can be," he said. "There's not a foolproof way of preventing this from happening in the future in any kind of criminal behavior. We can't eradicate it completely. I wish we could, obviously, but I think we deploy as many resources and methods to punish and rehabilitate at the same time, but the overriding goal is to keep them off the road."
Purdue University Fort Wayne Psychology professor Jeannie DiClementi said treatment centers are good for people addicted to alcohol and the bad driving behavior that follows, but can't put all her faith in them.
"People think that forcing them into treatment centers is going to cure the problem, but it does require a certain level of cooperation on the part of the person," she said. "Some people just don't want to get better. It is just simply easier for them to use substances for whatever the payoff is for them. Getting high feels good to some people and that feeling good is so reinforcing that it ensures that they're going to continue doing it."
She explained that those who are dependent on substances make poor decisions because they're impaired.
"Substance use affects the centers of the brain that govern impulse control, judgment, and decision-making and and when those brain centers are impaired the behavioral result of that is bad acts, bad decisions, poor judgment and so forth. So someone that would tell you that 'on any given day they wouldn't dream of getting behind the wheel of a car while impaired,' once they are impaired they can't make that decision."