A Young Man with a Long History of Driving While Impaired

Rabah Samara, the young man who took the wheel of the Cadillac after it crashed into and killed sports reporter Stephen Gates as he was changing a tire on I-40 in 2003 and drove away from the scene, was back in Wake County criminal court yesterday. Samara, now 37, plead guilty to misdemeanor impaired driving—resolving his fourth charge for that offense—and was sentenced to three years of probation and 14 days of imprisonment, which he may serve on weekends. The News and Observer reported that Stephen Gates’ mother, Pat Gates, watched Samara’s hearing from the front row of the courtroom.

Advocates of stiffer penalties for impaired driving might point to Samara’s case as evidence of the need for reform. Despite recent legislative acts increasing the punishment for misdemeanor DWI, Samara’s punishment did not approach the three-year maximum sentence that may be imposed for the highest level of misdemeanor DWI. That’s because Samara was punished at Level II, the level of punishment that applies to DWI sentencing when only one grossly aggravating factors is present. And Samara could not have been indicted for habitual impaired driving, a felony, because he had not been convicted of three or more offenses involving impaired driving within ten years of the offense to which he pled guilty yesterday.

How could Samara have only one grossly aggravating factor?  The News and Observer reported that while Samara had been charged with DWI four times since Gates’s death, he was convicted of only three of those charges. The first DWI conviction was based on his driving away from the accident scene where Gates was killed while impaired (Samara was acquitted of hit and run charges, and the law subsequently was changed to make it unlawful for passengers to leave the scene of an accident), and occurred more than seven years before the DWI to which Samara plead guilty yesterday. For that reason, it was not a grossly aggravating factor under G.S. 20-179(c)(1). A subsequent DWI charge was dismissed, and Samara was convicted of another DWI charge based on his driving while impaired in March 2013. Thus, it appears that only one grossly aggravating factor—the conviction for the March 2013 offense—applied.

The sentence imposed upon Samara was neither the minimum nor maximum sentence. Samara could have received as few as 7 days in jail, and as much as 12 months. Had Samara abstained from alcohol for at least 90 consecutive days as monitored by a continuous alcohol monitoring system, he could have avoided all time in jail. Samara’s attorney told the court yesterday that Samara abstained from alcohol for a month and was monitored by a continuous alcohol monitoring device during that period, but could not afford to have the device any longer.

Samara will be required, as a condition of probation, to obtain a substance abuse assessment and complete the recommended treatment. Because of his prior conviction, Samara will not be able to satisfy this requirement by attending Alcohol and Drug Education Traffic School, but instead must complete treatment of a length and type determined by the results of the assessment. Samara’s license also will be “permanently” revoked pursuant to G.S. 20-19(e). Samara nevertheless will be eligible to have his license conditionally restored after three years if he is not convicted of any additional motor vehicle or alcohol- or drug-related offenses and can demonstrate that he is not an excessive user of alcohol or drugs and is not unlawfully using any controlled substance.

Samara’s latest DWI was based on an alcohol concentration of 0.10 detected after he was stopped at a checkpoint—the kind of offense that, were it not for Samara’s past, would be considered a low-level DWI.

Should Samara again be charged with DWI, that offense still would be a misdemeanor. By now, Samara’s first DWI conviction is more than 10 years old. Thus, he would have only two qualifying predicate convictions rather than the three required by the habitual impaired driving statute, G.S. 20-138.5.

Readers, what do you think of Samara’s sentence? Is his involvement in fleeing from the scene of Gates’ death even a relevant consideration? Is the look-back period for impaired driving long enough or should it be longer? Is treatment required as a condition of probation more likely to rehabilitate Samara than a longer stint in jail?