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July 13, 2010 04:52 PM

Vehicular Homicide: Does Penalty Fit Crime?


Lately we've heard about case after case involving drunk drivers, and that has some people questioning South Dakota's punishments.


The latest case involves a third DUI and a deadly accident. If convicted of vehicular homicide, Tammy Kvasnicka, could face up to 15 years in prison, a sentence which could be cut in half with good behavior.

And some wonder whether that's enough.

It was an unexpected and violent crash that killed 27-year-old Michael Xayavong. Authorities say a repeat drunk driver was again intoxicated behind the wheel when she drove the wrong way down the interstate and smashed into the car Xayavong was riding in. Unfortunately, this is an all too familiar scene.

"DWI is a crime of violence and we see the consequences of that violence every time there's a collision, every time there's a head on crash," former Minnehaha County State's Attorney Dave Nelson said.

Nelson spent 20 years prosecuting crimes in Minnehaha County.  Drunk driving was always one of the most common offenses and repeated crimes he'd see.

"In our office, we always considered it a miracle if somebody had accumulated enough DWIs to get a fifth offense and hadn't been in a serious collision where somebody was injured or even killed," Nelson said.

Nelson says at times, he'd like to see state lawmakers give the court system more options, especially when it comes to sentencing those who commit similar crimes over and over.

"Fifteen years is a substantial penalty, but we also need to understand that for a first offender, even with the maximum penalty, they'll be getting released in about seven-and-a-half years, assuming they behave themselves in the penitentiary," Nelson said.

Nelson doesn't believe it's a matter of education because everyone knows the potential consequences. He says the only way to stop drunk driving is for people to make better decisions when they drink.

"What's even more frightening is when you see the person who has been involved in a vehicular homicide has served their sentence, got out of the penitentiary, continued to drink and drive and be convicted," Nelson said.

Another recent accident put vehicular homicide in the headlines. Jason Larsen Smith also faces a max of 15 years in prison after authorities say he led a highway patrol trooper on a high speed chase that ended when he went through a red light and t-boned another truck, killing 62-year old Curtis Neuharth.
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