LAS VEGAS, NV (KTNV) — High-profile DUI cases raise a lot of questions when the defendant is a celebrity, college or professional athlete, off-duty police officer, or the super-wealthy. We've seen several tragic cases here in Las Vegas in the past few years.
Our district attorney is once again calling for tougher sentencing, and even defense lawyers say change is needed.
"When you're driving under the influence, you're a potential killer," said Sandy Heverly of Stop DUI back in 2018.
Clark County District Attorney Steve Wolfson agrees and has argued for stronger laws to hold drunk drivers accountable.
"Well, we tried months ago," Wolfson said at a press briefing this week. "We filed murder charges in a case very similar to this where there was excessive and reckless driving. But the Nevada Supreme Court said that was inappropriate and we accept that."
"The Nevada Supreme Court deemed we cannot prosecute DUI causing death as second-degree murder," added Sandy Heverly of Stop DUI. "However, I believe 11 other states have no problem with it. That carries a penalty of 10 years to life."
"We currently have a vehicular homicide law that requires three prior convictions before you kill someone to prosecute under that law," added Heverly. "It, too, carries 10 years to life. Our proposed solution is to remove the three DUI requirements and prosecute all DUI deaths under that law."
Wolfson says his office receives scores of DUI cases every week, and he's got five prosecutors who do nothing but DUI cases. He hopes to bring stronger penalties up in the next legislative session.
"A person makes a choice minutes or hours before the collision to consume alcohol and then drive recklessly," said Wolfson. "That person faces a lesser punishment than a person who's convicted of murder, who may decide to kill somebody in just a few moments."
DUI defense attorney Chip Siegel disagrees.
"You don't see many DUI deaths where the person only serves the minimum two years," said Siegel. "Those are usually reserved for the substantial bodily harm cases."
Siegel says five to eight years is typical. And 10 to life if the defendant had previous DUI convictions.
"Sentencing doesn't come close to what we hear in court," Heverly said. "For example, the maximum sentence for felony DUI causing death is 8-20 years, but the reality is that when the automatic good time credits kick in and mandatory parole comes around, the actual sentence equates to serving about half of the time."
Her organization believes flat-time sentences with no parole/probation would be more appropriate.
Another element in play in the Ruggs case is where he came from and how much he drank before driving.
"The evidence suggests that he was coming from Topgolf," said Wolfson. "And then I think that there is some evidence to suggest after Topgolf, they went over to a friend's house."
But in Nevada, none of that matters because we don't have what's called a "Dram Shop" — which is designed to ensure establishments that sell alcohol do so responsibly.
Siegel says most states have some form of this law where, "You should have known you can't serve him anymore, and because you kept serving him alcohol at a point where a person knew he was too drunk, you bear responsibility for what happened next."
Meaning businesses and hosts could be sued for millions.
While not DUI cases, a Topgolf location in Texas is being sued by several customers who were allegedly injured while over-intoxicated.
Why is Nevada one of the few states lacking such a law?
"I would say because we are such a big tourism state," said Siegel. "And we have casinos, we have bars, people come to Vegas, I mean, it's adult Disneyland. And that's part of the image that we have. So that's probably the reason politically why we don't have the Dram Shop laws."
In Nevada, in most situations, no matter how intoxicated a person becomes or how many drinks a bartender serves, a business cannot be held liable for any injuries or damages caused by that conduct. Nevada law does allow social hosts who supply alcohol to minors to be held liable for damage caused by the minor's intoxication.
"I've been saying this for my entire career that if we really wanted to get serious about things, we need to partner with the community to make it safer," said Siegel. "And in this sense, partnering means you go to the casinos, you go to the bars, you go to the places like Topgolf and you say, 'Look, you have an obligation to keep all of us safe'".
"We tried to pass a Dram Shop law of sorts a number of years ago but were unsuccessful," said Heverly. "It was quickly killed and no legislator has any interest in pursuing it. We have always believed it's a shared responsibility on the part of the person serving the drug/alcohol and the person consuming it. Given our state's main industry, I don't see a Dram Shop law becoming a reality here."
Nevada is one of only eight states without Dram Shop laws. The others are Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nebraska, South Dakota and Virginia.
These high-profile DUI cases always raise questions about justice. Are the cases drawn-out, delaying justice for victim families? Siegel says it's very typical for DUI cases involving a felony to take two to three years no matter who the defendant is.
On the question of bail, Heverly believes what Ruggs got was atypical.
"The $150,000 bail amount that was graciously extended to Henry Ruggs, a public safety menace, was shameful and disgraceful. It spoke volumes—telling us the horror and violence of that crash, and the horrific way Ms. Tintor and her dog, Maxie, died was ignored," said Heverly
"I hope this bail isn't indicative of any other high-profile status perks that would benefit Ruggs. When bail is being determined, the severity of the crime must also be taken into consideration. Apparently, this wasn't severe enough to honor the state's request of $1 million, which would have been appropriate."