With a zero tolerance approach from local law enforcement and increasingly steep sentences from jurors, Rusk County is taking a hard line against driving while intoxicated.
“There’s no excuse for it, especially in this day and age, to be on the road if you’ve been drinking,” said Henderson native Johnny Rousseau, who served on a jury in a DWI case earlier this year. “In this day and age of smart phones and texting, it’s so easy to reach someone if you need a ride if you’ve been drinking […] there’s absolutely no reason to drive drunk, unless you just don’t care or think you can get away with it.”
But local authorities say getting away with it is not easy in Rusk County.
“We have troopers who are specially trained in conducting sobriety tests,” said Henderson-based Department of Public Safety Trooper Cpl. Jesse Stewart. “Even if you think you’re able to cover up the odor of an alcoholic beverage with gum or a breath mint, your body shows signs that are easy to read if you’ve been trained what to look for.”
And once taken into custody, the courts and juries are not hesitant to levy long sentences for those found guilty.
An Anderson County man was found guilty Nov. 26 by a six-person jury in Judge Chad Wes Dean’s Rusk County Court-at-Law in Henderson. According to evidence and testimony presented at court, on Nov. 26, Rusk County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Sgt. Jamie Blankenship stopped Eric Courtney Chambless II, 34, for traveling at a rate of 126 miles per hour on U.S. Highway 79.
Chambless is scheduled to be sentenced at a later date but, if other DWI cases are any indication, it could be a long incarceration.
4th District Judge J. Clay Gossett sentenced a Henderson woman to 15 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice on Nov. 29 and a Rusk County man to nine years on Nov. 30.
Sharon Fowler Hall, 56, was arrested back in March on third degree driving while intoxicated charges. According to DPS Trooper David Haney’s report, Hall was clocked at 92 miles per hour in a 70 mile-per-hour zone, just outside of the city limits on U.S. Highway 259.
Haney said, upon making contact with the Hall, he detected a strong odor of alcoholic beverages.
“Hall performed poorly on standard filed sobriety tests and was placed under arrest for driving while intoxicated,” he added.
Haney said criminal records showed Hall had prior DWI convictions and was placed under arrest for third degree driving while intoxicated.
Gossett said, though he’s prohibited from speaking about specific cases or types of cases, DWIs are a very serious matter.
“I am committed to the people of Rusk County to do all I can to make our community a safe place to live,” he said.
Rusk County District Attorney Micheal Jimerson said he wouldn’t comment on any DWI cases that might be currently pending litigation or appeal, but echoed Gossett’s sentiments.
“When I was a kid DWI was more a ‘sport’ than a crime, but we now realize how many senseless, needless deaths are prevented by simple, common sense precautions,” he said. “I am convinced we will live to see the last mother bury the last child that was killed by a drunk driver.”
Jimerson said this might come as a result of the increasing stiff penalties, in addition to criminal prosecution.
“This can include collateral civil consequences like the State DWI surcharges, loss of insurance and employment,” he said. “But the number one reason not to drive impaired is that you cannot live with having made an innocent suffer or die.”
Stewart cites the rising tide of those impacted by automobile fatalities, specifically those fatalities caused by an intoxicated driver.
“It’s hard to find many people that hasn’t been impacted by this in some way,” he said. “Whether it’s a friend, relative, or co-worker, this is something that’s affected many […] you’d think that would affect the way they act but that’s not always the case.”
Jimerson agreed saying that he’s seeing jurors take more of a proactive approach to deterring DWIs in their community.
“We are witnessing huge sentences,” he said. “Because the public is done tolerating this behavior.”