The most common felony

Drunk driving kills more than 13,000 people a year on Americaís highways. Every 39 minutes, a life is lost with alcohol behind the wheel. By this time tomorrow, 37 people who were here when I wrote this column will be suddenly snatched from their lives prematurely.

In my time at The Evening Sun, Iíve learned all too quickly of the relationship between alcohol consumption and criminal activity. In an unofficial estimation, Iíd guess nearly 80 percent of all crimes committed since I began working at the newspaper involved the consumption of a mind-altering substance, the most common by far being alcohol.

Whenever I attend court, I watch average, middle-aged people come before the judge to face charges of driving under the influence. At the county level, it is often their second, third, fourth or fifth offense.

I remember the two worst repeat offenders. One had 10 prior alcohol driving convictions and the other 14. Most of those were committed in the 60s or 70s from what I recall of the cases.

Often, when tucked into the Chenango County press box, I wait for the most serious of accused felons to stand before the bench. Almost always, the long gaps of time between them is filled with men and women wrangling plea agreements to felony DWIs or crimes inspired by their alcoholic belligerence. Domestic violence, probation violations, mischief, theft and assaults have a common place among those appearing before the judge. It has also played a role in at least four of the last five murder cases.

Each tells their story, seeking exception to the rule, a good person who drank too much, a relapse in judgment surrounded by a period of sustained recovery.

But very few seem enlightened enough to honestly embrace the scope of their habit. The ones at the start of their rope, who have never been in trouble before, along with those who are now at the end of it and heading to prison, are often the ones most eager to rehabilitate. The rest seem to fall into the stagnant social sea of public complacency and judicial tolerance until the next time consequence comes knocking at their door.

Last week, after leaving a Supreme County Court session where more than half of the appearing felons were DWI cases, I had an opportunity to watch one being committed in the act.

As I tossed my yellow notebook on my desk, I could hear the roused traffic rattling from the office scanner.

Two passing motorists, one of them a Sheriffís Office employee, had called in a report of an erratic driver heading north on Broad Street in Norwich. It was about 9:40 a.m.

If thereís a place you donít want to raise criminal attention, itís in the downtown City of Norwich on a weekday morning. The Norwich Police Departmentís average response time in 2008 was just over two minutes anywhere in the city, but at this time and at this location it was about 45 seconds.

Police pulled up behind the car just as it was passing through the Main Street intersection, less than a block from the police station. An officer radioed for assistance, saying the car had wandered into another lane and was not complying with his sirenís call to pull over.

The man then stopped his car and slipped it into reverse for some unknown reason and the pursuing officer, who was pulling his car up behind the suspectís, had to reverse to avoid a collision.

At this time I left the scanner in the office and traveled the half-block to where the incident was currently unfolding.

I watched the officer open the car door for the driver, who then all but fell flat on his face while exiting the car. I stood near them as police attempted to communicate with the slurring, stuttering and incoherent man.

After taking a sobriety test, receiving a brief medical look over from Norwich EMS and being told he was under arrest, the man seemed to suddenly notice that something of legal consequence was afoot.

His lower back leaning heavily against the rear of his car with both of his shaking arms propped on the roof the trunk for stabilization, the man began asking the two Norwich Police officers standing before him what was going on.

They explained it all over again and asked the man to ďpleaseĒ step into a waiting ambulance. He responded with belligerent remarks typical of inebriated obscenity.

I know nothing of the manís details and I didnít gather much information following the incident. It was a case just like the hundreds, if not thousands, of others in last three years and not a special occurrence demanding media ink.

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