Chuck Williams

Columbus DUI attorney on Nighthawks: ‘They do not make mistakes’

If you think you understand the Georgia drunk driving laws, you should consider this:

“The law has gotten so complicated in the last four years, nobody in the public understands anything.”

Who makes that claim? Columbus attorney Richard Dodelin Jr., who has been representing those charged with Driving Under the Influence for four decades. That should be sobering to anyone considering drinking more than a single beer or maybe a nice glass of red wine and driving this holiday season.

To highlight the dangers and complexity of the DUI laws, take the recent case of Christine Mennona of Cape Coral, Fla. Mennona was charged this week with first-degree vehicular homicide, driving under the influence and distracted driving in connection with the Sept. 4 death of 15-year-old Justin Johanson.

The car Mennona was driving about 3:30 a.m. struck Johanson, who was lying in River Road at the time of the accident, according to authorities. Johanson, a high school student, had a blood alcohol level of .224, according to the autopsy report.

Mennona had a blood alcohol level of .059 when her blood was taken about two hours after the tragedy. That is below the legal limit of .080, but police say it would have exceeded the limit at the time of the accident.

“I would be willing to bet you that her .059 blood alcohol level did not contribute to that child’s death in any way,” Dodelin said, who is not involved in the Mennona case.

Yet, Mennona faces felony charges and possible prison time. The 33-year-old woman’s life has changed in a dramatic way. And it could happen to anyone, Dodelin contends.

“When I started, the legal limit was .12, then it went to .10, then to point .08, then you’ve got DUI less safe,” Dodelin said. “That’s the wild card. If you drink more than one beer or one glass of wine, you get into what I call the gray area.”

Under the DUI less safe law, someone can be charged even though their blood alcohol content is under the legal limit of .08.

“In the old days, you did not get charged if you were .07, .06, .05 or .04 — it just didn’t happen,” Dodelin said. “But if you are below the legal limit and you do something wrong — and it doesn’t have to be much — you can be charged with DUI less safe. You bump the center line or you pull over the stripe at a stop sign or red light, they’ve got you. And they have a lot of discretion.”

And there is another factor those who drink moderately and drive should consider — the Georgia Department of Public Safety DUI Force. Commonly called the Nighthawks, they patrol Columbus on a regular basis.

“Those boys know their stuff,” said Dodelin, calling them true professionals. “They do not make mistakes on cases, they just don’t do it. And everything they do is on video.”

The Nighthawks are so well trained, they know if they have a case within seconds of the traffic stop, Dodelin said.

“They can take one look into your eyes and they know what they are looking at,” Dodelin said. “If they get you, you are got.”

If you get a DUI, it is going to cost you about $5,000 in fines, attorney fees and other costs, Dodelin said.

“But that is not the worst part of it — you can lose your job, and people do every single day,” Dodelin said. “And you are going to get your picture in the paper or The Joint before you are ever convicted.”

If you think you can drink and drive in Columbus, think again, Dodelin said.

“You can’t,” he said. “If you are drunk — even if you aren’t in some cases — and you drive, you are going to be arrested. That is a fact. They used to say that someone had done it a hundred times before they got caught. You don’t get those hundred times any more.”

Maybe more people should adopt Dodelin’s rule on drinking and driving.

“What I do is if I have that first swallow of the second beer or second glass of wine, I am not driving,” he said. “Period.”

That is pretty good free legal advice.

Chuck Williams: 706-571-8510, @chuckwilliams