• 9 Investigates: Repeat drunk drivers still behind wheel

    By: Allison Latos

    Updated:

    Story highlights:

    • Offenders facing harsher punishment has increased past three years.
    • Modifying law could stop repeat drunk drivers from getting back on road.
    • New bill considered would have repeat drunk drivers' cars confiscated, sold.

    GASTONIA, N.C. -- Pictures of 17-year-old Laura Fortenberry's young smile fill her mother's Gaston County home.

    Nearly five years after losing Laura in a drunk-driving crash, Michelle Armstrong's memories are still so vivid.

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    "Sometimes I can smell her perfume," said Armstrong.

    Her daughter was a passenger in a friend’s car when Howard Pasour crashed his Jeep into them. He was drunk and had been convicted of that crime three times before.

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    “It just tugs at your heart," said Representative Harry Warren. He is one of several lawmakers who pushed to pass “Laura's Law” in 2011.

    READ: Laura's Law

    The legislation increased potential jail time and fines for a drunk driver convicted of a third DWI charge with three or more aggravated factors, including a prior DWI conviction in the past seven years, a revoked license, causing serious injury to another person or driving with a child under 16 years of age in the car.

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    Eyewitness News reviewed records for the entire state since Laura's Law took effect to investigate the true impact, and learned 116 people faced harsher punishments in 2012. That number climbed to 351 drivers in 2013 and then 559 defendants last year.

    ARTICLE: Man charged with second-degree murder in crash

    "We're seeing an increase in the number of convictions each year," said Warren. He said those statistics show the law is working, but Charlotte defense attorney John Landreth disagrees.

    "I don't think we're any safer because of Laura's Law," said Landreth.


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    Landreth said Laura's Law has too many requirements and because it applies to a fraction of repeat drunk drivers it isn't stopping the dangerous problem.

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    "The heart behind this law was very good but it falls short in several areas," he said.

    Landreth believes modifying the law could stop more dangerous repeat drunk drivers from getting back on the roads.

    READ: Laura Fortenberry death lawsuit

    "We need to look back farther than seven years, we need to get a full picture of their driving lifespan," said Landreth.

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    Warren doesn't want to change Laura's Law but said during this legislative session he will consider a new bill that would have repeat drunk drivers' cars confiscated and sold. The money would help police educate people about the risks.
     
    "If you don't show the responsibility to handle that privilege responsibly, you don't need to be out endangering people’s lives," said Warren.

    IMAGES: Laura Fortenberry

    Armstrong hopes tougher laws and her daughter's tragic story will be a lesson to drivers statewide.

    "It can happen to you," she said. "I never would have thought in a million years I would have been burying my 17-year-old daughter. She's not going to ever be forgotten."


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    Landreth and Warren both agree there needs to be more police enforcement to stop drunk drivers.

    Channel 9 has reported the funding and manpower shortage facing agencies like the North Carolina Highway Patrol.

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    Warren said lawmakers will examine ways to boost the Highway Patrol's budget -- from expanding the sales tax to restoring film incentives to bring more business to North Carolina.

    Previous Stories:
    January 31, 2011: Lawmaker To Push For Stiffer Drunk Driving Laws
    October 26, 2010: Suspect In Fatal Crash Charged With 2nd-Degree Murder, DWI
    August 10, 2010: Volunteers Build Wheelchair Ramp For Teen Hurt In Crash
    August 4, 2010: Judge: Statewide DWI Courts Could Curb Repeat Offenses
    July 29, 2010: Lawmaker: Repeat DWI Offender Shows Holes In System
    July 27, 2010: Judge Sets Bond At $4M For Driver In Fatal Crash
    July 26, 2010: Man Charged With Second-Degree Murder In Crash

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