Crime

Court: Judge 'illegally lenient' in man's 4th 'fourth-offense' DWI conviction

NEW ORLEANS -- A man who appealed his fourth "fourth-offense" drunken driving conviction on the grounds that he was too intoxicated to understand the consequences of apologizing has not only lost his appeal, but a chance at parole or probation.

Brian James Watkins wanted the 1st Circuit Court of Appeal to throw out a statement he made to a state trooper after the accident.

A three-judge panel unanimously rejected his argument. It also found that trial Judge George Larke Jr. was "illegally lenient" when he said Watkins might win supervised release after serving three years of his 18-year term at hard labor.

Larke should have ordered him to serve the entire sentence, as required by law for people who have received probation or a suspended sentence on a previous fourth-offense DWI conviction, Judge Mitchell R. Theriot wrote for himself and Judges J. Michael McDonald and Page McClendon.

All three "predicate" offenses also were for a fourth or subsequent offense, and Watkins got probation or a suspended sentence all three times, Theriot noted in footnotes.

Watkins, 44, is currently in the Richland Parish Detention Center, according to an online state inmate locator.

Bertha Hillman, who handled his appeal, did not immediately return a call for comment Monday.

Carlos Lazarus, first assistant district attorney for Terrebonne Parish, said it's rare for appellate courts to overturn sentences as too light. But very occasionally, he said Monday, "the Court of Appeals simply looks at the case and says, 'Whoa! Wait a minute! By the way ..."'

He said it may have happened one to three times in his 19 years as a prosecutor.

Watkins was arrested Dec. 10, 2013, after a wreck about 9 p.m. that day in Terrebonne Parish near Houma, according to Theriot's opinion, handed down Dec. 23 and first described by The Courier. State troopers said his truck turned illegally in front of an oncoming vehicle, hit a second vehicle, and drove off. A passenger in the damaged vehicle got the license number and a description of the truck.

Two state troopers tracked Watkins down and found him, apparently asleep, on a couch. Trooper Christopher Mason testified that he woke Watkins, handcuffed him, put him into his patrol car and read him his rights, then drove him to the accident site.

At the site, Mason testified, Watkins said "he was driving and that he was sorry." That was the statement Hillman tried to get thrown out. Watkins later told Mason he had taken Zoloft and trazodone that day.

Mason said he would not have questioned Watkins had he thought Watkins too drunk to understand.

The trooper's testimony indicates Watkins gave "responsive, relevant, and coherent" answers to his questions, Theriot wrote in the opinion.

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