Harris County sees surge in underage DWI offenses during COVID-19 pandemic

Here are the deadliest DWI hotspots across the Houston area

HOUSTON – Over the last decade, the yearly numbers in Harris County for DWI-related fatalities have been near the top of the list nationwide. In fact, HPD’s DWI Task Force supervisor Sgt. Don Egdorf points to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stats, which show Houston leading the nation in 2019 with 155 DWI fatal crashes. The number topped Los Angeles County at 154, even though their population is double the size of Harris County.

As the pandemic forced everything to slow down, and in some cases shut down, the numbers didn’t go down, according to various law enforcement experts KPRC 2 Investigates spoke to. Lena Laurenzo, the attorney representing Luis Posadas, said she sees the increase.

“Unfortunately, we’re seeing more victims,” said Laurenzo.

“I wish I had something that we can pinpoint and say, ‘This is why the numbers didn’t drop as they should have, but the reality is they didn’t,’” Egdorf added.

Many of these cases have led to criminal charges filed by the Harris County DA’s office. The office logged two more intoxicated manslaughter cases in 2020 than in 2019, and they are seeing a rapid climb in 2021.

“It is a bigger problem than people realize,” said Captain Anthony McConnell with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

McConnell, a victim of a DWI crash, spoke with KPRC 2 Investigates during a recent weekend initiative involving the county’s task force. The focus of the initiative is to get drunks off the roads.

Local law enforcement is attempting to crack down on an issue that does not strictly involve alcohol.

“We do have a big issue with people smoking marijuana, or the THC vape pens or edibles. They are becoming a lot more popular and prevalent,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Dustin Ballew during a ride-along. Prescription medications like pills have also have been a problem in past cases.

KPRC 2 Investigates looks at the problem of underage drinking.

One particular area that has skyrocketed during the pandemic is underage DWI’s. In fact, Jackie Eaton said they are seeing many more young adults seeking help at his facility Gateway to Sobriety in southeast Houston.

“In the last year, especially the last six months, we are getting more young adults ages 18-24. That’s been predominantly the ones coming in for treatments for DWIs.”

The reasoning for this?

“There is usually alcohol in the home. And if they are at school, they are not drinking. They are having something to do because now they are doing their school on zoom, and they take a break, and they get bored, so they drink alcohol,” said Eaton.

A number of those kids have put themselves behind the wheel, according to the numbers. One group, in particular, has racked up an overwhelming amount of cases - young Latinos.

For a better understanding, click on the video above for a KPRC 2 Investigates Video Extra.

The DA’s office said the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) in the case of underage drivers is on the rise.

“It’s higher. People are drinking more,” Eaton said.

Criminal charges filed in Harris County related to DWI fatality crashes

Education is viewed as one of the solutions: “Don’t drink and drive.”

Officials said they would like more resources and personnel, but that takes more money.

As for what you can do to protect yourself on the roads?

”Pay attention. Be aware of your surroundings. If you’re seeing somebody that is coming up unusually fast or even unusually slow or seems to be swerving, avoid them,” Ballew said.

Egdorff advice comes from a parental perspective.

“I’ve got a 20 and a 22-year-old that is out there on the streets and driving around,” he said. “When you’re at an intersection and your light turns green, don’t just punch it and go through the intersection. Take a split second and take a look both ways, make sure there is not somebody coming. Even driving downtown where you have one-way streets, look both ways.”

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