Meriden judge lashes out in the wake of several DUIs
Meriden judge lashes out in the wake of several DUIs
January 18, 2014 09:41PM
By Mary Ellen Godin
Two men appeared in Meriden Superior Court this month on charges related to separate drunk driving accidents that left three people dead, including two small children.
Ryan Scalise of Middletown was charged with second-degree manslaughter and driving under the influence in the death of Moises Larriu of Southington. Toxicology tests on Israel Gonzalez of Meriden revealed last week he was driving a GMC Denali with a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit when he slammed into a Subaru and killed Lorenzo Cruz, 8, and his sister Tatiana Cruz, 5, who were buckled in the back seat. Gonzalez will face more charges including manslaughter and driving under the influence when he returns to court Monday .
Those weren’t the only drunk driving cases on the Meriden Superior Court docket on Nov.4. According to Judge Philip Scarpellino, there were at least eight other DUI cases on the docket for that one day alone and Scarpellino wasn’t shy about expressing his disgust.
“Why would someone put their own life and someone else’s at risk?” Scarpellino thundered at the defendant who followed Scalise. “The man before you did kill someone. This isn’t just for you, there are at least 10 people with the same offense. Meriden has more of these than any other court I’ve sat on and I’ve sat on 10 of them. ‘I’m sorry’ just doesn’t help when somebody gets killed.”
The court handles arrests made by local and state police in Meriden, Wallingford, Cheshire, North Haven and Hamden.
Scarpellino declined to be interviewed for this story. But court observers know him to be a fierce adjudicator in drunk driving cases, and the horrific weekend crash that claimed the lives of two young children was probably fresh in his mind, said Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers Connecticut Chapter.
But the rate of DUI cases in Meriden over the last year was not substantially higher than other courthouses. Meriden Superior Court processed 467 DUI cases between Nov. 1 2012 and Oct. 31 2013, according to records from the state Judicial Branch. The number represents 4.46 percent of all drunk driving arrests statewide. That’s higher than courts in Bristol, Danbury, Manchester, Stamford and Derby, but Meriden handles more cases overall than those courts. DUI cases in Meriden represent 1.72 percent of the courthouse’s total caseload, compared to 3.74 percent for Bristol, 2.39 percent for Danbury, 2.71 percent for Manchester, 1.96 percent for Stamford and 2.36 percent for Derby.
The highest number of DUI cases, 848, were processed in Hartford Superior Court. That figure represents 8.10 percent of all DUI cases statewide but just 1.93 percent of Hartford’s total caseload.
The number of arrests by local police departments have remained steady over the past few years. More roving patrols and checkpoints have been effective and helped reduce overall fatalities, said department spokesmen in Meriden and Cheshire.
“The fact that they are being very aggressive means a lot more people are being caught,” said Lt. Thomas Cossette, head of Meriden’s accident investigation and reconstruction unit.
According to MADD, there were 221 traffic fatalities in 2011. Of those, 42 percent were alcohol related. In 2012, there were 236 traffic deaths with 36 percent related to alcohol use.
“There has been a decrease which is quite impressive,” Heggie Margolis said.
Heggie Margolis attributes the drop to more Department of Transportation grant funding to police departments to increase sobriety checkpoints and patrols. With the holiday season fast approaching, even more funding has become available.
Connecticut has some of the most stringent drunk driving laws in the country which includes jail time for second offenders, said Meriden Police spokesman Lt. Salvatore Nesci.
“People who reoffend have a problem,” Nesci said. “The only alternative is incarceration for reoffenders and those numbers are on the decline. Law enforcement is doing everything in our power to prevent these tragedies.”
Two anti-drunk driving measures backed by MADD failed in the state legislature last session but the group will lobby for them again in February. One measure would make drunk driving with a minor in the car a felony under state child endangerment laws. The second part of the bill would make interlock ignition systems mandatory for first-time offenders, eliminating the need for suspending licenses, which Heggie Margolis said doesn’t work. Under current law, the ignition systems are mandatory in a second offense or first conviction.
State Sen. Leonard Fasano, R-East Haven, was among several lawmakers honored by MADD for co-sponsoring the legislation. The bill, which passed in the state House of Representatives, failed to get on the Senate’s consent calendar.
“There were some concerns that a felony was a severe penalty for a first-time offender,” Fasano said about the child endangerment aspect of the bill.
Fasano disagrees, and said if the bill is introduced in the next session, he will co-sponsor it again. He also supports the idea that mandatory interlock ignition devices can benefit first-time offenders in addition to keeping the roads safe.
“It still allows people to use their cars to get to work,” he said, as opposed to suspended licenses which force drivers to find rides to work or tempt fate.
Both MADD, state lawmakers and local police departments are aware that no matter how many laws are enacted or strengthened, driving under the influence won’t be completely eliminated.
Gonzalez’ case is particularly problematic for police and courts. According to court records, he was in the U.S. illegally, had no license and carried multiple identification cards. The Denali belonged to someone else.
“For all the good we’ve done over the years to minimize drunk driving, you’re going to have those small number of cases that fall between the cracks,” Nesci said. “We’ll try to honor their memory by making it better. We’re going to continue to learn new strategies for the community and come up with a plan.”