SPECIAL REPORT: Cracking down on serious DUI cases

SPECIAL REPORT Cracking down on...

CENTRAL COAST, Calif. - The Monterey County District Attorney’s Office handles roughly 2,000 DUI cases every year, though the most serious cases are handled by a specially trained team.

Brittainie Gomez was one of those cases. The young woman looks like your typical 20-something-year old, until you speak to her.

"So, I'm a convicted felon."

In 2014, the college student drove under the influence, crashing into a family on California Avenue in Marina.

“I remember after getting into the car accident and literally having to be pulled out of my car because my side was completely totaled,” Gomez recounts. “After getting out of my car and sitting on the sidewalk, I could see the mom and just the look on her face was like, ‘What did you do to my family?’ And it was really hard and instant regret, just kind of like, ‘What did I do? Like this is crazy.’"

She and the people in the other car were injured, fortunately no one died. After that, it was court, conviction and sentencing, and apologizing to the family before learning her fate.

“How do you forgive somebody for almost kind of hurting your family really bad?" Gomez said.

Her case is just one of hundreds filed by the Monterey County District Attorney Office’s Vertical Prosecution Unit. Monterey County is one of 19 counties statewide that has a unit like this. It’s made up of two specially trained attorneys and an investigator that deals with serious DUI cases, handing a case from the beginning all the way through trial.

During the last federal fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2015-Sept. 30, 2016), the Vertical Prosecution Unit filed 264 cases, securing 220 convictions. This year is on track with last year’s numbers with 154 cases and 92 convictions.

The unit has tried several high profile cases in the past several years, including Stuart Elder. He’s the man who was convicted of crashing head-on into a car, killing two women in Pebble Beach. His blood alcohol level was twice the legal limit. A second case is Francisco Miranda, who was convicted of running over and killing two women outside of Natividad medical Center while under the influence of marijuana.

"We have ten fatality cases that we're working on, two of which will probably be charged as murders,” said Managing Deputy District Attorney Ed Hazel. “We have 40 DUI cases that involve serious bodily injury to innocent victims.”

One of those cases going through the unit right now involves a U.C. Santa Cruz student. Lynnea Hernandez is charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter and reckless driving after being involved in a crash that killed two people.

"DUI's seem to occur just about everywhere,” Hazel said. “They're on the freeways, they're on surface streets, they're on country roads, they’re everywhere. We've had that experience where DUI’s happen in the sparsely populated areas as well as downtown Salinas."

Including in the small city of Marina that has a dedicated traffic unit within its police department. They sometimes set up DUI checkpoints. One woman tried evading one and ended up crashing into a light, splitting her car in half.

There are some cases that stick with the people who have to investigate them.

"The Jeanette Martinez accident was one that I will never forget,” said Sgt. Eddie Anderson. “I was part of that investigation. She was so young to have lost her life. She was a new college student and she was just beginning to work on her future and it was cut short. It affected all of us, it affected everyone that knew her."

A memorial stands at the spot on Imjin Parkway where Martinez was killed, just blocks away from where Brittainie Gomez had her crash.

Despite serving her sentence, she is still paying for her crime today. She is paying $32,000 restitution and is on probation for several more years. As part of her sentence, she speaks to high school students about the dangers of driving under the influence. She hopes to pass on the message – “Tell your children to do not what I have done.”

"It could be anyone of us, you know,” Gomez said. “They look at me like, ‘Oh my gosh, there's no way?’ The shock I see on their faces like, ‘No way!’ Like, ‘Yes way, this could happen to anybody.’ Don't let it happen to you."

DUI sentences have a wide range. A low level DUI, such as a first offense, a low blood alcohol level, or where no one was hurt, can be five days in jail and five years’ probation and fines and penalties just under $2,000. On the other end, a serious DUI were someone is killed could mean 15 years to life.

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