Mimesis Law
16 October 2017

Donald Ray Middleton’s Life Sentence for Our Laziness

June 10, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Not only could Donald Ray Middleton be the poster child for the ongoing nationwide war against drunk driving, but his story also makes for a great headline:

Man sentenced to life in prison for 9 DWIs

People who are inclined to gasp at the idea of some guy going away for the rest of his life for drunk driving, even if it happens to be for a whole bunch of drunk driving, are bound to be curious about the situation. So are those people inclined to shake their heads about someone getting nine DWIs. The facts don’t disappoint:

Middleton was jailed a couple of times in 2000 and jailed again in 2005 for 2 years. Eight years later, he was jailed and sentenced to 13 years in prison for DWI, according to Assistant District Attorney Justin Fowles.

People really hate other people who don’t learn their lesson. Combine that with our unshakeable faith in incarceration as a deterrent, and you end up with an unhealthy infatuation with progressive sentencing. What we can infer were relatively minor sentences in 2000 led to a two-year sentence in 2005, which led to a thirteen-year sentence eight years later. Continue the increase to its logical next step, and life, or a sentence that’s effectively life, makes perfect sense.

Unfortunately, those numbers are misleading, as it’s unclear how much time Middleton did in 2000. If it was just days, then the jump to two years for the same crime in 2005 is really something. Of course, it seems unlikely he actually did a full two years for that. After all, it’s obvious he didn’t do a full thirteen years eight year later. That was 2013, and he’d still be in custody with a decade left to go if he’d really gotten thirteen years.

It seems far more likely that he got few days or months here and there in 2000, a two-year sentence that ended up a lot less in 2005, and then a thirteen-year sentence in 2013 that ended up being less than three years. Considering those numbers, the jump to life in prison, if life does indeed mean life and not potentially something far less, is awfully harsh.

Regardless, there are people who will applaud the idea of throwing the book at a guy who just won’t quit drinking and driving. The actual facts and circumstances probably only feed the fire:

The latest DWI in 2013 involved a 16-year-old who was going home from work before the crash. Fowles told KPRC 2 that Middleton ran into the nearest gas station after the accident and asked if the people in the store could hide him. Fowles said the surveillance video clearly showed he was intoxicated.

Middleton also tried to evade the police on his sixth DWI.

“He ended up driving in a neighborhood while there were kids out playing. It was daytime, and (he) sped through the neighborhood,” Fowles said. Middleton ultimately parked on his lawn to go inside his house and hide from the police.

It turns out at least one of Middleton’s DUIs wasn’t a victimless crime. It wasn’t like he was driving fine each time and just happened to be unlucky enough to get stopped over and over again for a broken windshield. He actually caused a crash. Worse yet, it involved a minor.

On top of that, he tried to get away with causing that crash involving a teenager while drunk by evading authorities. Perhaps the most remarkable indicator of just how wasted he was is the fact he thought people at a store might actually hide him. A close second would be the fact you could apparently tell he was wasted just from surveillance video. Plus, evading police appears to be a habit for the guy, one that once led to him endangering kids speeding through a neighborhood.

Middleton’s is pretty much the case from hell for any defense attorney. He’s about as unsympathetic as they come. It’s not surprising that, if anyone is going to get life for a DUI, it’d be him. The rationale for the sentence isn’t that much of a stretch either:

“(Middleton) shows time after time that he is not going to be able to function in our society, and it was just a matter of time before his actions killed somebody,” he said.

Middleton really has two problems. The first is that he’s clearly a raging alcoholic. The second is that he has shown time and time again that he can’t stop himself from driving when he’s drunk. If he could fix either one, he’d be fine. Prison sort of fixes both, but it’s at great expense to the taxpayers and also robs both society and the people who might care about Middleton of anything he might have to offer for the rest of his life. It’s unlikely that Middelton is completely and utterly devoid of any redeeming qualities. Almost no one is.

If prison is the only option, then perhaps life in prison makes sense. Another article, however, notes something somewhat hard to believe but that, if true, might make prison seem like it isn’t the only option:

Perhaps the most unbelievable part of this is that after eight DWI convictions, Middleton still had a valid driver’s license when he was arrested for number nine.

I really do hope that some of Middleton’s prior DUIs occurred while his license was suspended. If it turns out the guy has never committed DUI while when he wasn’t allowed to drive, then the life sentence would be an epic waste of resources. Why spend hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars housing an aging alcoholic bound to suffer from all sorts of health problems, which will now be treated on the state’s dime, when you could just suspend the guy’s license?

Even if he’s still made it clear a suspended license won’t stop him from driving drunk, what if a lifetime of ankle monitoring would? Maybe a SCRAM device? Or a lifetime of home detention? What if just an interlock device and regular checks by probation to make sure he hasn’t gotten a new car without one would be enough to keep him from driving drunk?

It could be that something as simple as Disulfiram might curb his drinking. Or perhaps his inability to stay sober is caused by his life sucking so much that counseling is rendered completely ineffective. What if we could ensure he would never drink and drive again if only we provided him with treatment services that weren’t expensive, complicated, and that seem punitive to him and instead made sure the terms of his sentence didn’t mess with his life in a way that increased the triggers for his problem drinking? What if sentencing him to live in San Francisco or New York would prevent him from ever driving again, turning him from a dangerous drunk driver to just another harmless old drunk stumbling down the city streets on foot?

Few people are going to shed any tears about locking up Middleton and throwing away the key. It’s an extreme option, though, and although plenty of the less harsh options above surely wouldn’t make a difference or would never actually happen, some might.

Middleton really got a life sentence in large part due to our failings, not his. We have one tool, and we’re unwilling to think that maybe it isn’t always right to get the job done. Moreover, we’re so committed to it that we’re sending people away for life. Middleton’s sentence is as much about the failings of the system as it is about his recidivism.

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