Legal Limit: A look inside Iowa's drunk driving laws - KWWL - Eastern Iowa Breaking News, Weather, Closings

Legal Limit: A look inside Iowa's drunk driving laws

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WAVERLY (KWWL) -

A family with roots right here in Eastern Iowa is working to see no family suffers a tragedy like they have.

Drake Bigler was just five months old when he was killed by a drunk driver -- one of the more than 9,000 alcohol-related fatalities in the U.S. each year.

The punishment for vehicular homicide here in Iowa is stricter now than it was years ago, but for people who've lost a family member, a maximum 25-year sentence isn't enough -- especially when you consider few people will actually be in jail for that long.

It's why some Iowans want to see harsher consequences for anyone who doesn't think before they drink and drive.

Drake Bigler was his parents' pride and joy -- the perfect new addition to their growing family.

"He had the biggest smile," said Heather Bigler, Drake's mother. "They both had a lot of fun with him. They just brought a lot of joy to all of us."

In July, when Drake was just five months old, he was killed by a drunk driver.

"We encountered our event that's changed our lives and something that we will forever have to try to overcome," said Brad Bigler, Drake's father.

Drake's great-grandparents Lloyd and Mavis Bigler live in Waverly. The family's tragic event has Lloyd fighting to see justice for anyone who drives drunk.

"There are just not laws strong enough to take care of it," said Lloyd. 

Right now in Iowa, the punishments for first-offense operating while intoxicated include a stiff fine, mandatory alcohol treatment courses and a suspended license.

Repeat offenders face harsher penalties; years without a license and up to five years in prison. Not every repeat offender is charged with a true offense.

"Plea bargains do happen," said Fae Hoover-Grinde, a Linn County judge. "Plea bargains are a reality. They occur every day due in part to the number of cases that come through the court system."

Prosecutors believe plea bargains happen when the evidence of the case isn't strong. They say it's hard to convict someone who refuses a breath test if there's no other evidence.

"There's no compelling reason to make a charge and concession when you have a strong case," said Jerry Vander Sanden, Linn County Attorney. "It's the weak cases that either go to trial or result in a charge and concession."

New technology, like cameras in squad cars, helps. It shows the jury what happened the night of the OWI, so it's easier to lock up a repeat offender.

They just might not be behind bars for long.

"It is frustrating that the worst of the repeat offenders are not held very long in our prison system," said Vander Sanden. 

The parole board usually lets them out early. The same goes for drunk drivers who kill. The punishment for vehicular homicide while intoxicated is a sentence of up to 25 years in prison.

"The court does not have the ability under the current sentencing system that we have to determine how many days or how many years a person will serve when they go to prison," said Hoover-Grinde.

Most are let out in half the time due to good behavior and other prison credits.

"As a judge you have to trust the system that's in place and know that the parole board has been appointed and has been trained to make those determinations," said Hoover-Grinde. 

For things to change, it's up to lawmakers. Many feel the current punishments are fair for drunk drivers.

"I think our law is balanced," said Gov. Terry Branstad. "Twenty-five years is a long period of time."

The Biglers don't feel it's enough. Lloyd would like to see the punishment for drunk vehicular homicide be similar to Canada, where drivers face a possible lifetime sentence.

"If I walked down the street and shot somebody, I would be in jail for life," said Lloyd. "You drive down the road and kill somebody, you have limited years."

Bigler would also like to see those who drink, drive and kill lose their licenses for life. He compares giving a car back to a drunk driver to giving a gun to a murderer.

"If some drunk driver is driving down the road and kills people, the only difference between that and somebody coming with a gun and killing somebody is the man with a gun probably has intent," said Lloyd.

Others disagree, saying a car is necessary in Iowa.

"Do you want them to be a productive member of society?" asked Vander Sanden. "Do you want them to have employment? Do you want them to have work? If they're going to have work they're going to need a vehicle to get to work. Most would argue that. A vehicle is different than a gun or different dangerous weapon."

"The hope is that somebody's going to learn something from the treatment that will rehabilitate them and make them a safer driver," said Hoover-Grinde.

But to the Biglers, that doesn't provide justice to a person who kills. The Biglers have to spend the rest of their lives without their baby, an infant who lived just five short months.

"The tragedy that night still leaves you without one of your children," said Heather. "Because of somebody else's terrible decision, we've been sentenced for the rest of our life."

A bill was introduced in the Iowa House this month. If it becomes law, OWI punishments would be harsher, especially for repeat offenders.

A third-offense OWI would change from a Class "D" to Class "C" felony.

The Biglers are disappointed to see the bill doesn't mention stricter laws for vehicular homicide.

The driver of the car that killed Drake Bigler was sentenced last month. The accident happened in Minnesota and that driver is facing four years in prison and restitution fees.

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