How was it that Steven W. Barnes, a person with four DUI convictions and a permanently revoked license, was driving?
Eulalia Gaspar kept asking herself that question last week as she arranged to bury her 3-year-old daughter — and she wasn’t alone.
Priscila Perez Gaspar was killed Monday when Barnes, 56, lost control of the truck he was driving and hit her as she walked on the sidewalk along Kirk Road in suburban Lake Worth. That same day, six more Palm Beach County residents driving with either suspended or revoked licenses were caught, according to Palm Beach County Jail records.
But while a judge may ban someone like Barnes from driving, no one can physically stop them.
“The laws are good. The problem you have is that you can revoke somebody’s license but that doesn’t necessarily stop someone from driving,” Deerfield Beach-based attorney Marcelo Lescano said.
“The laws can be very strict and impose these penalties and say, ‘Look, you’ll never legally drive again.’ They don’t have the right to drive but yet they have the power to.”
State attorney spokesman Mike Edmondson says prosecutors are powerless “until the legislature decides that the penalties are going to be higher for those types of offenses.”
Since January, the Palm Beach County State Attorney has charged 7,718 for driving under either a suspended or revoked license. In 2012, there were 16,439 county drivers who received traffic citations for driving with a suspended or revoked license and 195,467 in the state, according to the state’s Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
Some say authorities ‘don’t care’
Almost half of the cases the state attorney’s office handles involve a defendant driving with a suspended license.
“It’s common practice because they don’t care if they have a license or not,” said Ellen Roberts, who helped create the office’s traffic homicide unit before retiring last year. “You tell them in court that their license has been permanently revoked, which means you can never operate ever, ever again, and then you turn around and you find them in the car.”
Sometimes, it’s as quick as minutes from the gavel dropping after they leave the courthouse.
A driver’s license can be suspended for reasons including failure to appear on a traffic summons, lack of auto insurance, not completing traffic school, suspension for points and a traffic violation resulting in injury or death.
But more seriously, a license can also be revoked depending on a drunken-driving conviction.
An ignition interlock — one that won’t let the car start if the driver’s blood-alcohol level is too high — is required after a second DUI. In some states, including Connecticut, Arizona, New York and Louisiana, judges order the interlock after one conviction. Other states including Montana, New Jersey and Rhode Island don’t suspend a license on a first conviction, according to data from the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Previously in Florida a person convicted of four DUIs could reapply for a license after 10 years of revocation. Today that no longer is allowed.
Barnes, who now lives in suburban Lake Worth, was convicted of four DUIs between 1979 and 1996 — the year his license was permanently revoked. Despite not having a license, he was caught behind the wheel again in 1999, 2002 and 2008. He spent days in jail on two of those convictions and a year for one of them.
Barnes, who was ordered held without bail Saturday at the Palm Beach County Jail on charges of vehicular homicide and driving without a license in a way that causes injury or death, could not be reached for this story.
‘Very hard to control someone’
Barnes isn’t alone. Just about a year ago and and less than two miles south of where Priscila was killed, William Melendez, who had a suspended license, lost control of the Chrysler Sebring he was driving and collided with a 1997 Mercedes driven by David Odom.
Odom was killed and Melendez was arrested on charges of DUI manslaughter, failing to render aid, vehicular homicide, DUI property damage and driving with a suspended license. He was found guilty of DUI manslaughter and failing to render aid.
The state attorney, however, did not act on the suspended license and dropped the other charges.
On Aug. 4, Palm Springs police arrested Julian Lopez, a habitual traffic offender. Lopez was convicted three times of driving with a license that was either suspended, revoked, canceled or disqualified, all within a five-year period. In March his driving privileges were revoked until March 2018.
“It’s very hard to control someone,” Palm Beach County Assistant State Attorney Andrea Robinson said. “What’s not to say they don’t hop in their wife’s car?”
State Rep. Irv Slosberg, who became an advocate for traffic safety after his daughter was killed in a 1996 crash, called Barnes a “menace to society” and said the only way to keep him from threatening public safety again is for him to go to jail.
“I can imagine what she’s going through because I lost my daughter,” Slosberg said. “I’m walking in her shoes. The first couple days, couple of weeks, couple of months, couple of years, they’re unbelievable.”
Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, met with Gaspar on Friday.
“I want justice, not for me but for Priscila. This is not fair,” Gaspar said. “This man should not have been on the street that day. He was. Now my daughter is gone.”
Staff researchers Niels Heimeriks and Fedor Zarkhin contributed to this story
Barnes’ driving history
1979/DUI/St. Lucie/Revoked license for 12 months
1983/DUI/Palm Beach/Revoked license for six months
1984/DUI/Palm Beach/Revoked license for 10 years
1996/DUI/Palm Beach/Permanently revoked license
2000/DUI/Palm Beach/One year in jail for driving with revoked license
/Driving with revoked license/
2002/Driving with revoked license/Palm Beach/Thirty days in jail
2008/Driving with revoked license/Palm Beach/Eight days in jail
SOURCE: DMV and Palm Beach County Clerk records
DUI convictions in Florida
First: Revoked license between 6-12 months. Most won’t receive any jail time, but there are cases where driver could serve up to six months in jail.
Second (after five years of first): Revoked license between 6-12 months. Jail time of zero days or as much as nine months.
Second (within five years of first): Revoked license for five years. Jail time of between 10 days and nine months.
Third (after 10 years of second): Revoked license between 6-12 months. No jail time required, but state’s attorney’s office usually recommends minimum of 90 days.
Third (within 10 years of second): Felony crime. License revoked for 10 years. Mandatory 120 days in jail.
Fourth: Felony crime. Permanently revoked license. Driver faces up to five years in prison.
SOURCE: State attorney’s office