Could Michigan do more to stop repeat drunk drivers?

Family wants justice after grandmother of seven killed in alleged drunk driving crash

Judy Besemer
An undated courtesy photo of Judy Besemer.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Three days before Christmas 2016, Mikelle Besemer opened the door of the apartment she shared with her mother to find her brother and two police officers. They were there to tell her that her mother, 62-year-old Judy Besemer, had been killed in a car crash.

Michigan State Police say James Williams was driving east on Knapp Street NE in northeast Grand Rapids when he ran a red light at the East Beltline and plowed into Besemer’s northbound SUV. Besemer was less than a quarter-mile from home.

She was rushed to the hospital, where she died. She left behind two children and seven grandchildren.

Judy Besemer with her son and grandchildren. Front, left to right: JJ, Joey, Gracie, Jaxon and Corbin. Back, left to right: Besemer, her son Justin and Justin's girlfriend Ashley.
Judy Besemer with her son and grandchildren. Front, left to right: JJ, Joey, Gracie, Jaxon and Corbin. Back, left to right: Besemer, her son Justin and Justin's girlfriend Ashley.

Williams, 50, of northeast Kent County, is now charged with driving drunk causing death. Michigan's sentencing guidelines suggest he be sentenced to 19 to 39 months in prison -- though a judge could go above that.

“He has to live with himself,” Mikelle Besemer said. “Well, guess what — at least he gets to live.”

She says something should have been done to keep him off the road. He has two prior drunk driving convictions and he didn't have a license at the time of the crash.

"In some way, in some form, this could have and should have been prevented, especially with his record," she said.

UNDERSHERIFF: LOOPHOLE DIDN'T CAUSE DEADLY CRASH

Williams was convicted of drunk driving in 1989 and again in 1995. It's possible he could have had another one of those convictions on his record if not for a loophole that Target 8 noticed while combing through police reports.

According to a police report on a February 2010 incident, which Target 8 obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, deputies spotted Williams driving up to a gas station and ultimately gave him a breathalyzer test that registered a blood alcohol content (BAC) level more than three times the legal driving limit.

But the sheriff’s department never requested a warrant for Williams’ arrest because the deputy didn't create a new report on the DUI, instead adding it to a report on a domestic incident that occurred earlier in the day between Williams and his then-wife.

"There was a follow-up that happened because he called for service again on the domestic, and we were on our way to his house when we came across him at a local business," Kent County Undersheriff Michelle Young explained.

The deputies reported that they had stopped at a gas station when Williams showed up to buy cigarettes, smelling of alcohol and carrying a vodka-filled coffee mug. According the police report, Williams agreed to a PBT -- a breathalyzer test -- at the gas station and blew a .25, which was later confirmed by a blood test at the hospital.

Deputies had called an ambulance for Williams because he was complaining of chest pains connected to the earlier domestic incident.

Since 2010, the sheriff's office has changed some procedures to close the gap.

"This incident actually happened seven years ago," Young said. "As we started to update our records management systems, we did a very in-depth study of work flow and we found that in circumstances where there were multiple cases that were really handled in conjunction with each other there was potential for gaps. So we ended up putting alerts in our records management system with some cues in place that would prevent that from happening again."

Additionally, officers now file separate reports for each incident instead of lumping them together in one report.

Young doesn’t think charging Williams in 2010 would have prevented the deadly crash in 2016.

"Any consequences for that charge seven years ago would have been already served," she said. "He would have likely been in the exact same time and place that he was at the time this accident happened. Although that’s unfortunate, it would not have been prevented by a charged seven years prior."

POLICE REPORT: WILLIAMS ROLLED CAR IN EARLY 2016

In addition to the 2010 case, Williams was involved in a potentially alcohol-related driving incident in March 2016, less than a year before the crash that took Judy Besemer’s life.

Williams told police he had rolled his car near Grand River Drive and 5 Mile Road but walked to his home before calling 911. The responding officer said he found Williams at his home and that he had a "strong odor of intoxicants," "slurred" speech and was "not understandable at times." When the officer checked Williams’ crashed vehicle, he reported that it "smelled strongly of alcohol" and there was an "empty aluminum pint" inside it.

But Williams refused a PBT, blamed the crash on multiple deer jumping in front of his car and claimed he hadn't started drinking until after he arrived home.

He was ultimately ticketed for violating a restricted license because he wasn't supposed to drive unless it was to work or substance abuse counseling.

The court file showed that the Kent County prosecutor recommended no jail time, but reserved the right to add an "open intox" charge if Williams took the case to trial.

As for the 1989 and 1995 DUI convictions, records show Williams served about two weeks in jail for the two convictions combined. He also lost his license for a time, but was later allowed to drive to and from work and substance abuse counseling.

At the time of the crash that killed Judy Besemer, Williams' license was both expired and revoked.

A timeline showing some of James Williams' driving history.
A timeline showing some of James Williams' driving history.

MADD: WILLIAMS "A TRAGEDY IN THE MAKING"

Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which ranks Michigan’s drunk driving laws 49th in the nation, described Williams as a "tragedy in the making."

The anti-drunk driving advocacy group also told Target 8 that Williams’ history is evidence that the state needs to change its approach.

Doug Scoles, state executive director for MADD’s Ohio office, reviewed Williams’ driving history and the sanctions levied against him at the request of Target 8.

"I must say (Williams’ case) falls clearly into the 'frustration' category at many levels," Scoles wrote in an email to Target 8. "Over the course of 25 plus years, Williams was treated by all appearances with very light sanctioning. … He was given fines, some jail time, offenses were pled down, and no real action to correct and prevent his behavior was ever taken."

MADD is pushing states to adopt a law allowing for "all-offender ignition interlocks," meaning first-time offenders would get interlocks installed on their vehicles. Those devices prevent the car from starting if the driver has too much alcohol on their breath.

MADD uses a five-star rating system to determine which states have the strongest anti-drunk driving laws. Michigan got one star. That ranking is based in part on the state not having all-offender ignition interlock rules in place.

Twenty-eight states have passed such laws, including Ohio, which recently passed "Annie’s Law."

>>PDF: MADD "Report to Nation"

"From the start, if (Williams) had received an ignition interlock on his vehicle, his driving behavior (and sobriety) would have been recorded and documented in real time and would have provided additional tools for the court to see what was 'really going on' with him," Scoles wrote. "It's safe to say conservatively speaking that having an ignition interlock would have gone a long way to prevent his drunk driving behavior."

A five-year study on ignition interlocks, based on data from multiple sobriety courts including that of Grand Rapids' 61st District, produced promising results.

"Based on analysis of data from five years of this project, the ignition interlock program has been generally successful," wrote one of the report’s authors. "It appears that ignition interlocks represent an evidence based method of reducing recidivism (particularly DWI recidivism), among repeat drunk drivers in the state of Michigan."

>>PDF: Michigan DWI/Sobriety Court Ignition Interlock Evaluation

ALL-OFFENDER INTERLOCK BILL IN MICHIGAN

There is a bill before the Michigan legislature, House Bill 4078, that would allow for all-offender interlocks.

A spokesman for the Michigan’s Secretary of State’s Office told Target 8 the office "doesn’t support" that bill, "but is open to discussing how ignition interlock devices can best be used."

"As drafted the bill would drastically increase the resources needed to effectively oversee the (interlock) program without accommodating for that increased workload. The bill is far from revenue neutral," Fred Woodhams, a spokesperson for the Secretary of State, wrote in an email.

Woodhams also pointed out the use of ignition interlocks has already increased dramatically under current laws. In 2009, Michigan had 3,800 interlocks installed, compared to 10,186 in 2015.

Additionally, Woodhams noted that the Secretary of State’s office successfully lobbied the legislature to set basic standards and regulations for interlock installers and manufacturers.

A spokesperson for Michigan State Police told Target 8 that while the agency has not reviewed House Bill 4078, it is “supportive of the concept generally.”

"The MSP has remained engaged in enforcement of impaired driving both on regular patrol and as part of statewide drunk driving crackdowns that are organized through the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning,” spokesperson Shanon Banner wrote in an email to Target 8. "We share MADD’s goals in reducing impaired driving and we consider ourselves to be partners with them in this effort."

Banner went on to list several laws that Michigan already has in place which are “generally considered effective," including:

  • Increased penalties for cases involving a high BAC (Michigan's "super drunk" law).
  • Ignition interlocks are mandatory for high-BAC convictions, as are restricted driving conditions.
  • Open container laws.
  • Increased penalties for child endangerment.

HB 4078 was introduced in January and is currently before the House Judiciary Committee.

JUDGE: WE'RE NOT DOING A GOOD JOB

A West Michigan judge has another idea to cut down on drunk driving crashes. He wants lawmakers to increase jail sentences for drunk drivers, even first-time offenders.

"We don’t have any minimum requirements … for a first-time drunk driver," said Mike Schipper, a district court judge in Barry County. "You can get a first-time drunk driving and get absolutely nothing. No probation. No jail. I could give you a minor fine and there could be nothing. That’s not right."

Schipper wants to see the state legislature up the maximum jail time for first-time offenders from the current 93 days to up to one year. He explained that first-time offenders wouldn't actually spend a year in jail, but said judges could use the additional time to monitor offenders' probation and keep tabs on their progress in substance abuse counseling.

The judge compared Michigan’s penalties for a first-time drunk driving offense to those for possession of marijuana.

"I’m not a marijuana fan at all, but if you get caught with marijuana, a teeny bit in your pocket, you could get one year," he said. "But if you drive drunk, which could kill somebody, the most you could get is 93 days. That’s wrong. That needs to be change."

Schipper told Target 8 that the abuse of alcohol is the biggest problem impacting the defendants he sees in his Hastings courtroom.

Comments are closed.