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Driving drunk severely injures woman, nets jail term

WAILUKU — For a drunken-driving collision last year that left a woman with lasting injuries, a Makawao man was sentenced to a two-month jail term and five years’ probation.

Kalei Cabanting, 22, apologized to the victims and their families during his sentencing July 31 in 2nd Circuit Court.

“This is the worst thing I’ve ever done and will ever do,” he said.

Cabanting had pleaded guilty to first-degree negligent injury, second-degree negligent injury and driving under the influence of alcohol for the crash on April 13, 2019.

That night, two women, who were close friends and had traveled from South Korea for a vacation, were in a rental car that was going down Haleakala Highway, said Deputy Prosecutor Brandon Segal.

He said Cabanting was heading uphill on the highway, drifted left of center and collided into the rental car.

“The damage was severe,” Segal said.

While Cabanting suffered some scratches but was otherwise “unscathed” when he emerged from his vehicle “littered with empty Coors Light cans,” the women were trapped in the rental car and had to be extricated by firefighters, Segal said.

One woman suffered a fractured rib, he said. The other woman suffered multiple fractures, a traumatic lung collapse and other serious injuries, Segal said.

“It’s a miracle she survived,” he said.

She was in critical condition when she was taken by Life Flight to an Oahu hospital, Segal said. After she was able to travel back home, the woman spent several more months in a rehabilitation hospital, he said.

“She continues, to this day, to have severe complications and significant difficulties in her daily life,” Segal said. “She is facing further surgeries.”

The woman was 36 years old at the time of the crash.

“Her life has likely been forever changed due to the defendant’s actions,” Segal said. “Her youth has essentially been stolen.”

Cabanting’s alcohol level was measured at 0.18 percent, which is more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent, Segal said.

While Cabanting was “genuinely remorseful” and didn’t intend to cause the collision, “he made a choice” to drive drunk, Segal said.

He argued for a six-month jail term to “deter further conduct, not just by the defendant but other members of our community,” and to reflect the seriousness of the crime.

“These tragedies are preventable, and the message must be sent to the community that these tragedies must stop,” Segal said.

Deputy Public Defender Selina Swatek asked the court to consider no additional incarceration for Cabanting, who previously spent three days in jail and has no criminal record.

“It was probably the worst night of Kalei’s life,” she said. “It was probably the worst choice. He’s so incredibly sorry for what happened.”

The night of the crash, Cabanting had been in a fight with his girlfriend and “found himself in a bar drinking hard liquor — not something he would usually do,” Swatek said.

“The amount he drank was so much, his judgment left,” she said. “He made that terrible decision to get behind the wheel and drive.”

Swatek said Cabanting stopped drinking when he was arrested and has attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

“This was life changing,” she said. “He has improved his life since this occurred, and it will never happen again.”

She said Cabanting was responsible, kind, hardworking and honest.

At the time of the crash, Cabating said, “I wasn’t mentally in the right place.”

“During that point of my life, I was just digging a deeper hole with the drinking and negativity,” he said. “Since then, I’ve surrounded myself with positive people.”

He said he has thought about his actions and the consequences.

“Since then, I feel so much more goal oriented and motivated to be a better person, especially for me and my family.”

When questioned by 2nd Circuit Judge Richard Bissen, Cabanting said the beer cans in the front seat and behind the driver’s seat of his vehicle had been left there from another day. He said he hadn’t been drinking beers in his vehicle that day or night.

Bissen noted that after a young woman was “senselessly killed” in a traffic collision last year, the community rallied against drunken driving.

Around the same time, he was assigned to be 2nd Circuit chief judge and had considered instructing all 2nd Circuit judges to impose the maximum sentences in DUI, negligent injury and negligent homicide cases, Bissen said.

“That’s how strongly I felt about what was happening in our community,” he said. “I cannot believe in 2020 we still have people driving drunk on our roads. We have seen so much evidence of the destruction.”

While in times past, people had to rely on taxis or family for rides, now buses and ride-sharing services are available, he said.

“We have so many options today,” Bissen said. “Bars will pay to send their customers home these days, because bars understand how much this impacts them.

“We don’t need people dying. We just need people being a little smarter, which means before you drink, you got to decide how you’re getting home.”

When he considered having judges impose maximum sentences, Bissen said, “I thought the only way we can impact this is give everybody the maximum sentence no matter what happens — every DUI, every case, because maybe then someone will understand. There’s no need, there’s no reason to drive drunk on our roads.”

“But I know that’s not fair to do that,” he said. “I recognize that we must take every case individually and look at it.”

In Cabanting’s case, that included considering his “otherwise spotless record” as an honor roll graduate who attended some college before deferring his education so he could work to support his family, including a child, Bissen said.

“And you’re a valued employee,” he told Cabanting. “And you made this decision that’s altered your life and the life of others.”

In a letter to the court, Cabanting said he was taking responsibility and would embrace any punishment “as a reminder of my actions.”

“That’s insightful,” Judge Bissen said. “You understand it helps you in some way to be reminded you got to make better decisions.”

As part of his sentence, Cabanting was ordered to pay $297,513 in restitution, most of it to the woman who was severely injured in the crash.

Segal said she had no coverage from her Korean health care.

Cabanting also was ordered not to consume alcohol or illegal drugs. He was allowed to turn himself in Aug. 1 to serve the rest of his jail term.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.

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