Kern County DA joins prosecutors' call to try and stem rise in fatal DUIs

Dec. 26—In 1981, Rhonda Campbell's 12-year-old sister was killed by a drunk driver.

More than 40 years later, the victims advocate for Mothers Against Drunk Driving still becomes emotional when she talks about how the sometimes fatal and tragic consequences of driving under the influence impact families and communities, especially around the holidays.

"Unfortunately, this time of year, my phone doesn't stop ringing," Campbell said, noting she's worked with victims throughout California, trying to help ease their suffering and creating hope for change that will prevent these types of crimes from happening again.

In response to "surging DUI fatalities" in counties throughout California, including Kern, district attorneys from San Diego to Placer counties held a joint news conference via Zoom this week in an effort to raise the alarm.

In Kern County alone, District Attorney Cynthia Zimmer noted a doubling in the number of fatal DUI prosecutions that have crossed her desk in the last year. To emphasize the growing concern, which was the idea behind Wednesday's virtual meeting, she shared that the number of people killed in these types of crashes jumped 136 percent year over year to hit 26 in 2021.

One of the more recent Kern County cases was especially tragic: JJ Malone, 19, was helping his 9-year-old sister Caylee Brown home from school around 1:16 p.m. Dec. 8 on the 1400 block of Panama Lane, where they were struck and killed by a car. In that collision, Zimmer's office has charged the woman accused of driving into the siblings with second-degree murder, noting previous DUI convictions, as well.

The DAs discussed some of their theories behind the rise in these types of crashes, from COVID to societal attitudes toward law enforcement to the attitudes of some lawmakers in the Legislature who were accused of passing laws that are too soft on crime.

"It's not just because of COVID that we've seen this increase, although I think that is a significant factor," Zimmer told the other DAs and members of the media watching. "Every year, the California Legislature does pass new laws that benefit criminals. And after a decade of pro-crime policies, predictably, more innocent lives are lost, including those at the hands of impaired drivers."

Zimmer specifically mentioned a recent law that could affect those who might otherwise face what's known as a Watson murder charge. Typically, a person accused in a first drunk-driving incident that results in death would face a vehicular manslaughter charge, which could have a sentence of a few months, which was another example that Campbell shared.

However, if a driver is convicted of a DUI, and then kills someone in a crash while driving under the influence, the law allows prosecutors to charge the driver with second-degree murder. The second-degree murder charge is established by virtue of a driver signing an acknowledgement after a first conviction that they're aware of the danger in driving while intoxicated.

Zimmer lamented Wednesday that Sacramento's latest "pro-crime" policy was a law allowing those accused of a DUI misdemeanor of completing a diversion program, a series of steps through which a person would be able to avoid a conviction, meaning there would be no record of the offense and therefore no increased penalty for a repeat offender, she said.

Assembly Bill 3234 has frustrated a number of district attorneys as it specifically "allows a judge to offer misdemeanor diversion to a defendant over the objection of a prosecuting attorney." Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law last September and it took effect Jan. 1.

The bill's author, Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, hailed the governor's signature as a way to ease overcrowding in jails, as well as offering compassion to first-time offenders.

"In these times of reflection when the fairness of our criminal justice system is front and center, we can start by offering more compassion and understanding. A second chance is sometimes all someone needs to turn their life around, and when it's an option, we often get better rehabilitative and reintegration results," Ting said in a statement in response to the bill's passage. "The Governor's signature on AB 3234 is another step toward criminal justice reform."

Those on Wednesday's Zoom call, however — which also included prosecutors from Sacramento, El Dorado, Yolo and Fresno counties — were looking to stem this type of reform on behalf of fatal DUI victims and their families. They were also sharing a message about how DUI charges are always avoidable.

"I want to assure the public that the Kern County District Attorney's Office is continuing to aggressively prosecute," Zimmer said, "but we also want to call upon the public to please, please refrain from driving under the influence of alcohol, under the influence of marijuana or under the influence of drugs."