Policy-makers, parents seek DUI overhaul in emergency meeting - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Policy-makers, parents seek DUI overhaul in emergency meeting

Melandus Penson (Source: Marshall Co. Jail) Melandus Penson (Source: Marshall Co. Jail)

Call it an anti-DUI all-star team.

Cops from a half-dozen North Mississippi police departments and sheriff's offices. City, county and district prosecutors. Even Cody and Robin Holden, parents of 17-year-old Kara Holden, one of the surviving Briarcrest Christian School students in the May 31 Marshall County, MS., DUI crash that killed her classmates Rachel Lynch and Maddie Kruse, both 17.

They came together Tuesday at the Holly Springs Police Department not to assign blame, but to find solutions to Mississippi's DUI failures, including the failures that allowed 32-year-old Melandus Penson of Belden, MS, to crash into those girls on his seventh DUI.

Ending with a moment of silence, the meeting started on a mission of clarity. They all agreed Mississippi DUI law is a mess, starting with its first head-scratcher: it takes three DUI charges before an offender is charged with a felony in Mississippi (it takes four charges in Tennessee).

Then Holly Springs City Attorney Amery Moore dropped this bomb:  an offender who is finally charged with a DUI felony in Mississippi usually serves the mandatory 1-year jail sentence at home -- on house arrest.

"People aren't actually going to prison. They are going home," Moore said. "They are being monitored by ankle bracelets, but they are still able to be on the streets."

So this all-star team started brainstorming. Inspired brainstorming. They proposed a Mississippi DUI overhaul that should include:

* No more house arrests on any DUI charge.

* Mandatory jail time on a first offense DUI: a minimum of six months.

* Second DUI = violent felony, punishable by at least five years.

"We're convicted to get this pushed through," said Cody Holden. "I have to earn the right to kiss my daughter every day -- earn it. And we're going to do that. I'm going to do that."

The team also pledged to pursue a statewide database in Mississippi -- most likely managed by the Mississippi Department of Safety -- to share city and county DUI cases in real time with the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). A WMC Action News 5 investigation revealed Penson's 7-DUI history was never reported to the NCIC. As a result, he pleaded guilty to five first-offense DUIs because arresting agencies could not verify his past cases and convictions in as many as four Mississippi jurisdictions.

U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, (D) Memphis, and U.S. Rep. Trent Kelly, (R) Saltillo, MS, are drafting legislation to withhold federal criminal justice funding from states that do not establish a clearinghouse for cities and counties to relay DUI case information to the NCIC.

"The state of Mississippi, for example, could have laws that require that the data by the (court) clerks be submitted to the NCIC or submit it even to Jackson, where some statewide record-keeping forum could be available," Cohen suggested.

Mississippi State Rep. Bill Kinkade of Byhalia, MS, recommended the state at least come up with a patchwork county-to-county DUI reporting system while it ponders a statewide database. "That's being able to work county-to-county in our local communities, certainly at our state boundaries. We have the ability to do that currently, so that's where we have to start."

Marshall County Sheriff's Deputy Major David Cook said North Mississippi police agencies could immediately share active DUI cases through an existing mass e-mail alert system originally designed for sharing domestic violence incidents.

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