For DUI, Personal Costs Are High
Virginia Arrests Exact Both a Financial and Mental Toll
By Lena H. Sun and Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page A01
Cam Johnson and her husband had donated money to campaigns against drunken driving. They often talked to their three children about its dangers. And Johnson, 32, rarely drank alcohol other than a sip of champagne on New Year's Eve.
But on a September night last year, the Herndon mother attended a birthday party at a D.C. restaurant. Prodded by her girlfriends, she said, she ordered a Remy Martin cognac and Coke. Her friends had drunk more, so she volunteered to drive them home.
"I thought, I'm doing a good thing here," she said. "But then, it backfired on me."
Johnson was arrested on the Reston Parkway when she drove her BMW through a yellow light at 4:30 a.m., she said. A petite woman, her blood alcohol level tested at 0.09 -- 0.01 above the state legal limit. She became one of the 27,000 Virginia drivers convicted last year of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
As Virginia and other states across the country tighten laws against DUI offenses, the legal ramifications of an arrest are becoming more serious and more predictable. But the personal fallout is harder to measure.
A DUI arrest sent Dondi A. Randolph, an Alexandria man working to become a plumber, into a financial crisis. For State Department retiree Robert Alexander, it has meant depending on friends to drive him on every errand. One man said he agonized over how to explain to his children why he couldn't coach the Little League team after losing his driver's license.
For some, it can bring public embarrassment and loss of livelihood.
Rebecca L. Perry's job as Alexandria's school superintendent was jeopardized after her DUI arrest in April. And Dulles security chief Charles Brady resigned after admitting that he was driving drunk on New Year's Day while he was supposed to be overseeing airport security during a Code Orange terror alert.
The hardships associated with a DUI conviction pale when compared with the loss suffered by the families of the 17,000 Americans killed every year in crashes involving drinking drivers. Drunk drivers don't get much sympathy.
To gauge the effect of a DUI arrest on the lives of ordinary people, The Washington Post examined the court records of 92 drivers -- everyone arrested during a one-week period last September in Fairfax County, the region's largest jurisdiction. Their stories offer a look at the often painful consequences of an arrest, even before Virginia's stricter laws went into effect July 1.
The majority of those arrested -- 74 of 92 -- were, like Johnson, charged as first-time offenders. And almost all the first-time offenders received the same sentence: losing their license for a year. Most were permitted to drive to such specified places as work, school and medical appointments. Most paid a few hundred dollars in fines. Eight of the first-time offenders spent time in jail.
Many who received a DUI conviction said its huge financial costs and burdensome restrictions upended their lives.
Johnson said she lives with the consequences of that one drink.
She feels like an outcast in her own family. Her marriage has collapsed, in part because of arguments about the thousands of dollars her arrest has cost. She described the experience as the most wretched ordeal of her life.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company