You Can’t Drive Drunk With Nothing to Drive

Steve Russell

Few of us have been unscathed by alcohol, and I am no exception. A close Cherokee relative, big-hearted and kind when sober, was a mean drunk who finally ended his life in a drunken header off a bridge. When my son was 7, I had to tell him a drunken driver had killed his best soccer buddy. Another drunken driver cost me seven months in a hospital and injuries that affect my daily life almost fifty years later.

I am one of the lucky ones who can take booze or leave it, so the only moral issue is that I leave it when with someone I know is not so lucky. Not being a drunk does not make me feel superior, since I know it only means I’ve won a genetic lottery.

State legislatures and tribal councils come under pressure whenever there are particularly gruesome deaths, usually of children. The number of drunken driving deaths per capita by state fluctuates, but most of Indian country stays consistently above the median. We worry over it, and we have good reason to worry.

When I first became a county level judge in Texas, my docket was driven by drunken driving cases. By the time I left, it was driven by domestic violence cases, but alcohol often reared its ugly head there as well.

I came to understand the impulses behind alcohol prohibition, and if prohibition were practically possible I would cheerfully give up the beer that goes with football and the tequila that goes with poker.

It’s not practically possible to ban alcohol, and it’s particularly not possible for reservation communities. Any attempt gets you a highway of death between the rez and the nearest legal booze and a bootlegging class that can sometimes make more money than the tribal cops. This is not unlike what happened to the US, where alcohol prohibition turned the Mafia from a few street thugs confined to immigrant neighborhoods to a wealthy national syndicate.

The criminal justice system cannot fix the alcohol problem with more punishment. A drunk quits when the necessity to quit is imposed by family and friends.

So what about all those drunken driving casualties? How can we minimize the body count? Smartly.

We can manipulate the time more drunks are on the street by mandating closing hours. If closing time is midnight, the roads get more deadly until about 2 am. If the closing time is 2 am, you move the surge of drunk drivers later.

We can manipulate where by controlling the placement of drinking establishments.

Manipulation of time and place makes life easier for the cops, but it does not protect from a drunk at the crack of dawn nowhere near a bar.

You cannot stop drunken drivers by putting them in jail. They are going to get out. I have seen drunken drivers do it again after serious prison sentences. It’s not like they do it on purpose. Part of the pain of a hangover is the self-loathing and the promise to yourself never to do it again…just like last time.

You cannot stop drunken drivers by fining them. If they have the money, they will pay and pay again. If they don’t have the money they can’t pay but they will impoverish their family in the attempt.

You cannot stop drunken drivers by taking away their licenses. They simply keep driving, and a tribal court usually has no jurisdiction to revoke a state license. While a tribe has the power to require a license of reservation residents, the only result of taking it away would be that the tribal cops could stop a repeater on sight and they could get a list of all the residents not allowed to drive.

You cannot stop drunken drivers by requiring ignition interlocks, but you can enrich the companies that make the interlocks.

The state of New Mexico is, as this column is written, considering a bill to ban convicted drunken drivers from buying alcohol. It works so well to keep teenagers from drinking, right?

I used to order people I put on probation for drunken driving to “consume no alcoholic beverages.” This was not because I thought they would not drink, but rather so I could revoke their probation for mere consumption. It’s easier to prove that a person had a drink than to prove she committed the crime of public intoxication while on probation.

Here’s something tribal governments can do that state governments have not had the will to do. Instead of taking away the booze, take away the other property necessary to commit the offense, the vehicle. Starting with the second offense, any vehicle—even if rented or borrowed—is forfeited to the tribe. First offense would be unfair, even though first offenders can kill you just as dead, because no amount of preaching can teach that if you have a buzz on, you’ve had too much to be driving. If a first offense can’t teach you, you’re a hazard.

What about the innocent spouse? Auction the vehicle, pay off the loan, and give the spouse half of what’s left.

What about non-Indian repeat drunken drivers? Tribal courts cannot entertain criminal sanctions of non-Indians generally, but this is a civil forfeiture. Tribal courts can consider prior drunken driving convictions in state courts.

There’s no practical limit to the number of bottles of beer a drunk can acquire. I bet there’s a limit to how many vehicles.

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




Anonymous's picture
great article and some great ideas to stop drunk driving. If every state would follow these ideas maybe we could keep drunks off the road everywhere and save some lives!
Anonymous's picture
One night on a boat a drunk walked up to Steve and swayed right in front of him, less than an arm away. Steve quietly answered the drunk's increasingly aggressive questions. What do you do for a living? I'm a teacher. I could buy and sell you. You aint worth __it. Are you. I went for a security guy. Steve is 6'3'' and the drunk was a normal sized fellow. After he was taken away I asked Steve why didn't you deck him. Steve said Where I come from we treat drunks gently.
Two Bears Growling's picture
An interesting idea, but I don't see it solving the root of the problem: Alcoholism. Any one who has lived on a Rez anywhere will tell you of the tragedy alcohol has brought to those they know. Folks who have been killed by drunk drivers, families who have alcoholics in their ranks & the various abuse alcohol has brought to them. Until the punishments can cure the problem among our people & society as a whole we are going to continue seeing all the tragedy that alcohol brings. I have seen many folks killed because of drunks driving. Young lives lost & families torn apart from the aftermath. There is no pain like the pain from losing a child & especially from a drunk driver. Our people have to realize we have DNA going against us from the beginning. We do not have the genes other people have to process the alcohol. The higher the blood quantum, the less the ability to process it. It's better for folks with a higher degree of Indian blood to just not take the first drink. Alcohol is not our friend. We have to go back to the ways of our ancestors & get back to social events that did not even have this washichu firewater even at them. Too many times folks equate drinking with having a good time. It's not having a good time having your head where it was never meant to be. It's not having a good time waking up with a stranger & wondering what has been going on that you don't have any memory about. It's not a good time finding out you just caught a STD because of a night on the town. There isn't one good thing about drinking if you just stop & think about it. Not one.
Two Bears Growling
Anonymous's picture
There is absolutely no scientific evidence for genetic theory. you merely have bought into the education you received, but that how it goes when you get educated in America, you either buy into what they say or find out yourself. We know where you stand. In another case, I do know someone who told me, he got the keys from a brother to go to the truck and sleep in the back while in the camper. later he got a DUI, because he had control of the keys, so believe what you may, America is on the way down, the story is proof.
Two Bears Growling's picture
Annon, I would have to disagree with you 100% on your comment. Anyone who has an advanced degree in human genetics, biology & medicine would prove you 100% wrong. As another individual posted below your comment listed tons of data for you to investigate that proved what I have written here. Please investigate what you claim BEFORE you post something like what you did. There are tons of us highly educated folks from & on the Rez to dispute your baseless claim on this topic.
Two Bears Growling