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Is Colorado's felony DUI law working? The struggle to stop repeat offenders from still driving drunk

A 9Wants to Know investigation found 2,222 people have been convicted under the state's felony DUI law, but less than one-third of them actually go to prison.

Editor’s Note: All this week on 9NEWS and 9news.com is an in-depth look at repeat drunken drivers, the tragedies they’ve been blamed for, and how a new state law intended to crack down on them is – or isn’t – working. You can watch the first story Monday night on 9NEWS at 9 and 10 p.m. 

KUSA - They have been a problem on Colorado roads for decades – repeat drunken drivers who, despite being busted, are still drinking, still driving.

In perhaps the most notorious case, a man named Richard Strock crashed into a guardrail in 2005 along Interstate 70 in Denver and killed his former wife after the two of them had spent time at a bar.

It was his 19th drunken driving arrest in 31 years, according to Colorado Bureau of Investigation and court records reviewed by 9Wants to Know. Convicted of vehicular homicide and driving while under the influence of alcohol, a judge sentenced him to 48 years in prison. There is the very real possibility that Strock, now 76 years old, will die behind bars – according to current calculations, he won’t be eligible to apply for parole until August 2025, when he’ll be nearly 83.

It was with people like Richard Strock in mind that legislators in 2015 passed a new law making a fourth or subsequent DUI a felony, a measure that Gov. John Hickenlooper signed and that carried the possibility of six years in state prison for a conviction of drinking and driving for the fourth time.

One of the sponsors of the law was current Denver District Attorney Beth McCann, at the time a state representative.

“The ultimate goal of the law was to – is to – reduce the number of people driving drunk on our highways,” McCann told 9Wants to Know this month. “And part of the goal of the law is to be a deterrent, because a felony is more serious, more of a deterrent than a misdemeanor.”

From the time the law took effect on Aug. 5, 2015, through the end of 2018, 4,261 cases of felony DUI have been filed against motorists accused of driving drunk for at least the fourth time, according to a 9Wants to Know examination of charging data compiled by Colorado’s Office of the State Court Administrator and a review of thousands of court files.

More than half those cases have been settled – and 2,222 people had been convicted of felony DUI as of Dec. 31, 2018.

But the 9Wants to Know analysis of sentencing data in all the cases that have been adjudicated showed that the punishment varied widely – less than a third were actually sentenced to prison.

Some who went to the county jail spent as little as one day behind bars – and nearly 200 spent no more than 90 days locked up.

And, the analysis found, more than 10 percent of the felony DUI cases involved people who had been charged under the law at least twice – meaning a felony DUI conviction didn’t stop them from doing it again.

Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: kevin.vaughan@9news.com or 303-871-1862.

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