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2 years for 16th DUI? Prosecutors say they couldn't be tougher

August 28, 2012|By John M. Glionna

A 60-year-old South Dakota man has been given a two-year prison sentence for his 16th drunk-driving conviction -- and that sentence rankles anti-drunk-driving activists.

Robert Groethe has a 35-year record of drinking and driving and is a danger to the community, prosecutors say. Eleven of his DUI convictions have been felony offenses. Groethe was sentenced earlier this month to two years in the South Dakota State Penitentiary for his conviction on charges of driving drunk and hitting a parked car outside a Rapid City casino in June.

Officials had let him off easy. After Groethe pleaded guilty to the drunk driving charge, prosecutors dropped a charge of driving with a revoked license. At the time of his June arrest, Groethe had a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit, authorities say.

Prosecutors say the two-year term is the longest allowable under state law. Groethe will be eligible for parole in less than a year. They say state law puts a 10-year limit on past DUI convictions that can be used to enhance a current penalty.

“I wish that the statutory wording provided for a longer look back,” prosecutor Sarah Morrison told the Rapid City Journal. “Mr. Groethe’s history is a perfect example of why that’s important.”

Drunk-driving activists criticized the penalty as not fitting the crime.

“Someone who’s arrested 16 times for this charge obviously has some larger issues,” Anna Duerr, a national spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told the Los Angeles Times. “This needs to be addressed on so many levels, in addition to the fact that this man hasn’t learned that this is not an acceptable behavior. And because of that, he’s putting lives at risk.”

Duerr said MADD was trying to persuade states such as South Dakota to install locking devices on the cars of people convicted of drunk driving. “Research shows that license suspension does not work when it comes to stopping drunk driving,” she told The Times.

“Up to three-fourths of those with suspended licenses will continue to drive, but with ignition interlocking devices repeat offenses are reduced by two-thirds," she said. "Injuries are prevented, lives saved.”

MADD statistics show that, on average, by the time a person is caught drinking and driving, he or she has already operated a vehicle under the influence of alcohol 80 times without getting caught, she said.

Groethe, who racked up his first drunk driving offense in 1977, reportedly caused $2,750 in damages in his June crash. He then allegedly left the scene of the accident, telling bystanders he was going to get his insurance information. Police later found him at home.

While Groethe’s conviction number is high, he doesn't even hold the Pennington County record for drunk driving arrests, officials say. That dubious distinction goes to a South Dakota man often known as Mr. DUI; he was convicted more than 20 times.

The man, Jerry Zeller, died in 2008. Police say he may have died in a house fire after falling asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand.

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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