A woman convicted of drunken driving 11 times
since 1989 shows how hard it is to keep such motorists off the highways
[photo caption:] Marcella Swearengen has had 11 drunken driving convictions since 1989 - more than anyone else in Oregon. But she has never been imprisoned for drunken driving. She is currently in the Columbia River Correctional Institution for driving with a suspended license.
By Dave Hogan
of The Oregonian staff
By Dave Hogan
How many times can someone get caught driving drunk in Oregon and not go to prison?
Marcella Swearengen can tell you.
The 42-year-old woman has been convicted of drunken driving 11 times since 1989. That's more than anyone else in Oregon.
Yet. Swearengen never has been sent to prison for drunken driving.
Swearengen is one of 29 drivers who each has eight or more drunken driving convictions in Oregon, according to a computer search of state Driver and Motor Vehicle Services records through August 1995.
Nothing has been able to stop them and others from repeatedly driving drunk. Not the police. Not the criminal justice system. Not even the Oregon driver licensing system.
For Swearengen, the only thing that got her off the road was a January 1995 conviction for driving with a suspended license.
But the suffering stills lingers with some of her victims.
Take Patty Whitaker, for instance.
The Salem woman had a job at a bakery that she loved and had been working there for more than 11 years. That's when she first came into contact with Swearengen.
While stopped at a red light in 1988, Whitaker's car got struck from behind by Swearengen's vehicle. The injuries left Whitaker unable to work for the next three years.
"It just in a moment's time changed the course of my whole life," Whitaker says.
After the crash, she kept reading items in her local newspaper about Swearengen's latest drunken driving arrests.
"I had to quit looking because it wasn't good for me," Whitaker recalls. "I couldn't do anything about it, and I would just get angry."
Despite all the public concern, drunken driving is not considered a major crime. It's a Class A misdemeanor that carries a maximum penalty of one year in a county jail.
Please turn to
DRUNK, Page A15
Drunk:Other Northwest states have made drunken driving a felony
Other states, including Idaho and Washington, have made drunken driving a felony charge after a person collects repeated convictions or is involved in a crash causing injuries.
In Oregon, it doesn't matter if you do it one time or 11 times. There is no system to keep drunken drivers off the road.
A bill introduced in the Oregon Legislature earlier this year would have made driving under the influence of intoxicants a felony if a person was convicted of that crime for a third time within a 10-year period.
Also, it would have required at least a six-month prison sentence, but the bill didn't pass.
The failed bill, and other drunken driving laws around the Northwest, are trying to address a real danger. Although the number of Oregonians who die in alcohol-related crashes has dropped during the past decade, the toll still averages about four victims each week.
And drivers who repeatedly drive drunk are particularly deadly, according to a 1995 report issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The report cites a study that shows intoxicated drivers with prior drunken driving convictions are four times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than an intoxicated driver with no convictions.
Another study shows the risk of involvement in a fatal crash increases with the number of prior drunken driving arrests, the report says.
Marcella Swearengen doesn't look like a dangerous person. She stands a shade shorter than 5 feet tall and wears shoes with pink shoelaces.
She's one of about 500 inmates at Columbia River Correctional Institution near Portland International Airport.
In the prison commissary, she bought a shiny St. Christopher medallion. On its oval shape stands the likeness of the patron saint of travelers, walking along a path with his staff.
Swearengen wishes she'd hooked up with him sooner.
She quietly explains that she isn't proud of her driving record.
But she also doesn't think it is strange that she continued to drive long after authorities took away her license for drunken driving.
"I had to work, and I had nobody to take me," she says. "I have to work to support myself. And the bus system in Salem is not a very good one. I didn't drive when I didn't have to."
Swearengen grew up in the San Francisco area and says her first drunken driving conviction occurred in San Jose about 1975. She spent 20 days in a county jail.
She moved to Oregon about 1983. Three years later, she was placed in a diversion program after she was caught driving while under the influence of intoxicants.
Then, her record exploded. From January 1989 to August 1990, she picked up eight drunken driving convictions, all in Marion County. That's an average of about one every 2 1/2 months.
Several judges in Salem tried everything they could think of to stop her. They sent her to jail. They sternly lectured her in court. They fined her. They sent her to alcohol treatment programs.
Other people took action, also. State authorities took away her driver's license. Insurance companies canceled her auto insurance. Someone sued her for the damage she caused in a 1988 collision.
But nothing helped. By March 1992, a Marion County prosecutor scribbled a note in red ink on Swearengen's case file after yet another drunken driving episode.
"How can it be that she is out of jail free to roam the streets?" wrote Jean Kunkle, a deputy district attorney in charge of prosecutions in district court.
In January 1995, Swearengen finally was sentenced to prison. At Kunkle's request, Marion County District Attorney Dale Penn OK'd prosecuting her on a felony charge for driving with a suspended license.
In Oregon, an average of 15 people each week receive at least their third drunken driving conviction.
The results often can be devastating.
Consider the case of Henry N. Thomas. On Sept. 22, authorities charged the Waldport man with drunken driving, felony hit and run, and criminally negligent homicide.
The vehicle he was driving struck three people walking along a road. The collision killed a 20-year-old woman and an 11-year-old girl.
Thomas, 43, had been convicted of drunken driving in 1985, 1989 and 1993.
Swearengen, for her part, hasn't killed anyone, but she says she wishes she had been sent to prison earlier. It would have helped, she says.
"I feel that this time I'm doing actually one of the best things that could've happened to me," she says. "It's getting me a lot of time to look back at how lucky I am that I never killed anybody or hurt myself."
Swearengen says treatment programs are the key to stopping drunken drivers, although she knows firsthand that the programs can't work if the patient isn't ready to change.
"You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink," she says.
She expects to be freed in April, and she is confident that she will be able to keep away from drinking and driving.
She says she got rid of her car, and her mother and boyfriend will drive her where she needs to go. She'll go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Down the road, she will try to get her driver's license back.
"I think I should be given a chance," she says. "Everybody deserves a chance. I know people think I shouldn't, but that's their opinion."
11 Convictions 1
10 Convictions 1
9 Convictions 6
8 Convictions 21
Source: Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles, August 1995
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