Lauren Renee Sepulveda
Two prosecutors are attempting to change the culture around driving while intoxicated in Hidalgo County.
One night during my sophomore year of high school, some upperclassmen and I sat in a traffic jam on the freeway. We could see the red and blue lights of police units piercing through the darkness, and it was clear there had been a pretty serious wreck on the frontage road. As we inched past the scene, Jesse Diaz—a boy who would later be the valedictorian of his graduating class—wondered aloud if we knew someone hurt in the wreck. As it turns out, we did.
The three teens involved in the one-vehicle crash were all schoolmates of ours, including the intoxicated driver. The one fatality was the backseat passenger—a smiling, friendly freshman named Charlotte Rhae Bustillos. At a point in our lives where we felt invincible, the dangers of driving while intoxicated (DWI) were suddenly very real and sobering. No longer was a DWI just a vague threat of criminal repercussions but a possible death sentence.
Back at school, all of us reeled from a young life cut short far too soon. But sadly, Charlotte was not the last death from an intoxicated driver we’d see during our youth. A couple of years after he graduated, Jesse was also killed when an intoxicated driver crashed into a car in which he was a passenger. Another brilliant young life that was full of potential was extinguished because an impaired driver got behind the wheel.
A culture of drinking
Growing up in Hidalgo County, I watched alcohol become part of the youth culture at an early age. When I was in high school, teenagers would cross into Mexico every weekend to get around the 21-year drinking age in Texas—you could drink at 18 across the border. My peers and I would routinely get into cars whose drivers we knew to be intoxicated by drugs or alcohol without a second thought. When I returned home after college and worked for a local school district, several of my fifth- and sixth-grade students were already openly experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
After law school, I returned to Hidalgo County and began working as an assistant public defender. A large percentage of my clients were charged with DWI or other intoxication offenses. When I began working at the Criminal District Attorney’s Office in 2013, the reality of just how many crimes involved alcohol or drug intoxication hit me full-force. As Operation Strong Safety came into effect during the immigration crisis and more law enforcement agents flooded our county, those arrests continued to increase. Synthetic drug arrests were also on the rise, and we saw an uptick in the number of DWIs, intoxication assaults, and intoxication man-slaughters that involved drugs alone or a combination of alcohol and drugs. Even more startling was the number of cases where intoxicated parents or guardians were arrested for DWI with minor children in their cars. At every turn since I entered adulthood and the legal profession, intoxication has consistently been a large problem in our community—albeit one that is rarely addressed before someone is in trouble with the law or has developed a substance abuse problem.
As in many jurisdictions, driving while intoxicated is a huge problem in Hidalgo County. It is the eighth largest county in Texas with a population of 831,073 at the last census.1 According to the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), last year Hidalgo County saw 884 alcohol-related car crashes, 24 of which had a fatality.2
In 2014, three out of the five intoxicated-driver crash fatalities in Hidalgo County were people under age 21.3 By comparison, Dallas County, which has a significantly larger population of 2.5 million, had only six such fatalities,4 and Travis County, with a population of 1.2 million, had zero.5 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that every two minutes in the United States, a person is injured in a drunk driving crash and that on average, two of three people in their lifetime will be involved in a drunk-driving crash.6 While these statistics may seem shocking, they expose what a large problem intoxicated driving is in Hidalgo County, our state, and our nation.
Doing something about it
In late summer of 2014, Carisa Casarez and I attended the State Bar Leaders Conference in Houston as representatives for the Hidalgo County Young Lawyers Association (HCYLA). At that time, Carisa was an assistant public defender for Hidalgo County but now serves as an assistant criminal district attorney in our felony section. As part of the conference, we had discussed issues within our local communities with other attorneys from across the state. Carisa and I both voiced our concern about increasing arrest rates in Hidalgo County, specifically DWI arrests.
The following year, during the 2015 State Bar Leaders Conference, the Texas Young Lawyers Association (TYLA) announced it was giving out local affiliate grants for community service projects for the upcoming year. Carisa and I, both board members for HCYLA, knew we wanted our organization to perform more community service in 2016 and began brainstorming about a possible grant project. We wanted to do a project centered on DWIs but were stumped as to the specifics. As prosecutors, we knew there were already programs in place within our office to address DWIs once a person had been arrested and charged with the offense, so we decided to focus on prevention. After several hours of planning, we decided on a public service and education campaign focusing on DWI education and prevention in our young adult population. The goal is to intervene and change the culture of intoxication before young adults begin to commit DWIs or get in vehicles with intoxicated drivers—sort of a D.A.R.E.7 campaign for DWI.
After we returned from the Bar Leaders Conference, we began writing the grant application. We decided to call it the Young Adult DWI Intervention Program, or YADI for short. Once we completed the application, we submitted it and waited patiently for TYLA’s response. In the fall of 2015, HCYLA was notified that our grant request was accepted and we were to receive a grant of $1,250 for the YADI project. Our HCYLA Board of Directors decided all the grant money would be spent on promotional and education materials for the students we want to reach. (The board has already discussed future fundraising projects and the possibility of soliciting donations from local businesses and attorneys to fund the YADI program beyond our one-year grant.)
As Carisa and I began writing the curriculum for the YADI program, the first person we talked to was our boss, Criminal District Attorney Ricardo Rodriguez. Since taking office in January 2015, he has been very supportive of his ACDAs participating in leadership organizations and community service projects. When we told Mr. Rodriguez about the YADI project focusing on prevention and education concerning DWIs, he immediately told us that the office would give us any support we needed and agreed to partner with our project.
Carisa and I then contacted the three judges who deal with juvenile cases in our county— the Honorable Jesse Contreras of the 449th District Court, the Honorable Israel Ramon Jr. of the 430th District Court, and the Honorable Mario E. Ramirez Jr. of the 332nd District Court—all of whom gladly endorsed our cause and offered their assistance in implementing the program.
Next we contacted Ana Verley and Rudy Rodriguez, victim services specialists with the local Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) affiliate. Carisa and I have both previously worked with MADD when prosecuting intoxication cases. When we pitched the idea for the YADI program as a community service project, MADD offered its support and resources without hesitation. The HCYLA Board of Directors then began contacting our local law enforcement agencies to appoint liaison officers for YADI within each department. Each agency we contacted responded enthusiastically. At every turn, we were pleasantly surprised with the positive feedback we received for our program from our local law enforcement community.
Starting in April, we rolled out the YADI project. HCYLA members staff it, along with MADD employees and local law enforcement. Our plan was to visit local schools and meet with parents to distribute education and prevention tools to combat DWIs. On Friday, April 15, HCYLA did its first presentations of the YADI Program to the students of Sgt. William G. Harrell Middle School and Mercedes Early College Academy. Ana Verley from MADD, Trooper Maria Montalvo from the Texas Department of Public Safety, local juvenile judge Jesse Contreras. and I presented to the students about the dangers of minor drug and alcohol abuse. We got an overwhelmingly positive response from both the students and staff at each school.
YADI is currently targeting middle school and high school students and their parents. We felt that this age is where several behaviors that lead to future problems with alcohol and drugs first develop—but drinking and drug use are not yet part of their culture. It’s also the least-served group when it comes to DWI prevention and education. When we expressed this idea to Ana Verley from MADD, she agreed that this was a good age group to target and told us that we could potentially create future advocates for our message of prevention by targeting these particular kids.
When we visit local schools we will be doing “safe and sober” activities with local kids, sponsoring art contests, and educating children by talking about DWI and its consequences from several different points of view. We aim to teach them preventative measures to keep them from driving while intoxicated or getting into a car with a drunk driver, and how to prevent intoxicated friends from getting behind the wheel. We are excited to visit local schools and have the students bring their materials home to start addressing this issue with local families. HCYLA hopes that by rolling out the YADI program, we can educate the local community and provide both parents and kids with the tools to prevent DWIs in the future.
Together, HCYLA—with the support of the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office, TYLA, MADD, local juvenile justice judges, and local law enforcement agencies—is trying to change the culture surrounding driving while intoxicated in our community.
Editor’s note: Prosecutors in Hidalgo County have been so gracious as to provide the Powerpoint they present to students and parents for other Texas prosecutors to view and download. Find it below as attachment.
1 Texas Counties by Population, http://www.texas-demographics.com/coun-ties_by_population.
2 May Ortega, “More Drinking Means Less Dodging,” The McAllen Monitor, March 9, 2016, www.themonitor.com/news/local/more-drinking-means-less-dodging/article_a1a4f72c-e5a0-11e5-8b33-ff40435be4c5.html.
3 Texas Department of Transportation, DUI (Alcohol) Driver Fatalities by County and Age (2014).
6 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The Economic and Societal Impact Of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2010,” March 2016, DOT HS 812 013. www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812013.pdf.
7 Drug Abuse Resistance Education.