Charles Howard Bennett of Harrison County is a serial drunken driver, but he won't be getting behind the wheel for awhile.
Circuit Court Judge Lisa Dodson has sentenced Bennett to five years in prison after his ninth conviction for driving drunk. Dodson gave Bennett the maximum sentence — 10 years under a relatively new law — but suspended five years.
The law, which went into effect Oct. 1, 2016, makes a fourth DUI a felony, no matter how long ago previous convictions happened. An older state law makes three DUIs a felony, but only if they are within five years of one another.
Bennett has been driving drunk on the Coast since at least 2006, said Harrison County prosecutor Herman Cox, who cobbled together all of Bennett's previous DUI arrests to ensure he would face a felony charge.
Repeat DUI offenders sometimes escape felony charges because law enforcement officers are unaware of previous convictions in other jurisdictions.
Cox was about to prosecute Bennett for felony DUI in January 2017. But the night before he was due in court, Bennett went out and got drunk because he knew he was going to jail, Cox said.
A Harrison County sheriff's deputy noticed Bennett driving erratically and tried to pull him over, but Bennett kept going, even after he hit spike strips. Deputies eventually caught up with him at his house.
He has been in jail since June 2017, when a grand jury indicted him on the new felony DUI charge. He will get credit on his sentence for time he has served.
Cox doesn't know why Bennett has continued to drive drunk, but he's not the only one.
Since the fourth DUI became a felony regardless of time frame, Cox said he's upgraded about 15 cases to felony charges, and has several more on his desk that will be upgraded.
Cox and his office are thorough in checking state, federal and local records for previous convictions. It can be time consuming because there are no centralized computer records for most state criminal courts in Mississippi.
“I guess if you're an alcoholic or drug addict, you can't stop," Cox said. "That's all I can figure.”
"'They just have a problem. Most of them have not gotten treatment or some of them who have, they fall off the wagon again.”