Some drunken drivers keep returning to the road despite repeat offenses

Jeff Rossen and Charlie McLravy, TODAY

It was early one Saturday morning nearly four years ago when a drunk driver changed Ellie Phipps' life forever.

It was 6:30 in the morning and the Grand Junction, Colorado, woman was driving to the gym when John Wesley Plotner, a drunk driver with half a dozen prior DUIs, slammed into her from behind at 45 mph, never hitting the brakes.

Phipps' spine was shattered. She underwent numerous operations, including an open-heart spinal surgery that she nearly didn't survive. "I died three times, actually," she said. "Luckily, they were able to revive me each time."

Phipps spent 20 months in a half body cast. Today, the woman who was once a mountaineering and fitness buff wears a back brace everywhere she goes.

When she learned that Plotner's DUI conviction after hitting her was his seventh, "I was absolutely outraged," Phipps said. "This is a sect of people who have absolutely no regard for the law." Plotner pleaded guilty to DUI and served a two-year sentence. He has since been arrested on other charges and is in custody.

In 2013, says the most recent data available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 10,000 people died in drunk driving crashes — one every 52 minutes.

The FBI says that every day almost 300,000 people drive drunk, yet only 4,000 are caught by police. An average drunk driver has driven drunk 80 times before his first arrest, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the NHTSA estimates that on average, two out of three people will be involved in a drunk driving crash in their lifetime. 

Robert Groethe has been arrested 19 times for driving under the influence, and pleaded guilty 16 of those times. Even so, the South Dakota man received only a two-year prison sentence for his 16th conviction in August 2012, when he hit a parked car in Rapid City.

Approached outside his home by TODAY investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen, Groethe was unrepentant. "I've already done my time. Are you gonna get p---ed at me?" he said. "I'm getting p---ed at you!"

“Why did you get behind the wheel 16 times? You could have killed somebody,” Rossen said.

“Because I was drunk all the time,” replied Groethe. 

And Rossen Reports found others like Groethe across the country, including Danny Lee Bettcher of Bayport, Minnesota, who is free today despite 27 DUI convictions. "It's more than staggering, it is off the charts," said Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "And off-the-charts wrong."

Anti-drunk driving advocates say that several states have laws so weak that a drunk driving conviction is merely a misdemeanor no matter how many times the driver has been arrested — often resulting in just a license suspension, or minimal jail time at most.

One of those states is Colorado, where Ellie Phipps was hit by repeat offender Plotner. In fact, when the Rossen team rode along with Officer Ryan Marka, head of the DUI task force for the Aurora, Colorado, police department, it took just two hours for him to apprehend a repeat offender. 

"He's got at least a half a dozen prior DUIs," said Marka, who made 567 DUI arrests last year alone. “It’s devastating, because this is someone who's repeatedly disregarding public safety in order to continue to drink and drive.” 

Rossen spoke with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper about his state's drunk driving policy: "Forty-five other states in this country have tougher drunk driving laws than Colorado? Sitting here as the governor for four years, why is that?"

Hickenlooper said the state legislature "saw the decline in drunk driving fatalities, and they felt the problem was being solved. And yet, they didn't realize that we are aware of this — a number of drunk drivers who clearly have a substance problem — they continue to get caught repeated times. And we weren't putting them in jail."

Now a tougher law is in the works in Colorado. “Is your priority this year to get this bill passed so it becomes a felony to get multiple DUI convictions?” Rossen asked.

"Yes," Hickenlooper replied. "I've been assured by both the leadership of both parties that we will get this done this year."

"They've been working on this bill for nine years," retorted Ellie Phipps. "Enough is enough. [Repeat DUI offenders are] still out there, and they need to be put in jail." 

MADD agrees that repeat offenders belong behind bars because, they say, 50 to 75 percent of them will drive drunk again, even if their licenses are suspended. At the very least, MADD says, repeat offenders should have to use an ignition interlock device — a sophisticated Breathalyzer hooked up to the car that they would have to blow into before starting their vehicle.