WAILUKU - "When were you going to stop?"
Second Circuit Judge Richard Bissen asked that of a Lahaina man who was arrested last year for drunken driving, after three prior DUI convictions in the previous 10 years. If Bounsouk Phanphongsa hadn't been arrested for the fourth time July 23, he would still be drinking and driving, Bissen said.
"What were you waiting for?" Bissen asked Phanphongsa. "Were you waiting to kill somebody?"
As part of his sentencing Friday, Phanphongsa was ordered to turn himself in July 4 to serve a six-month jail term as part of four years' probation. He also was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and $887 in fees.
Phanphongsa, 50, had pleaded no contest to habitually driving under the influence of an intoxicant. The felony charge can be brought against someone arrested for DUI for a fourth time after three prior DUI convictions within 10 years.
In court Friday, both the defense and prosecution referred to Phanphongsa's background that brought him to Hawaii from Laos.
He was 5 years old when he took a 3-year-old relative across a river, leaving their home country and other relatives to live in a refugee camp "where essentially they are going to be tortured and tormented on a daily basis," said defense attorney Chris Dunn.
Through age 10, Phanphongsa lived in refugee camps in Thailand or the United States, Dunn said.
Phanphongsa went to school, is an accomplished electrician and has coached soccer, Dunn said.
"He has made a very successful life for himself," Dunn said. "He's just got to square up with not only his alcohol problem but the deeper-seated psychological things going on. He is going through steps that are going to lead him to a better future."
Deputy Prosecutor Kerry Glen acknowledged that Phanphongsa "has really overcome a lot of chaos and has built a great life for himself.
"But when you look a little deeper . . . this man appears to be a deep and severe alcoholic," she said.
Phanphongsa was arrested before 8:30 p.m. July 23 after he was seen driving 60 mph in a 45-mph zone while heading north on Honoapiilani Highway near Kahananui Road, police said. A Lahaina patrol officer who stopped the vehicle reported seeing signs that Phanphongsa was intoxicated. He couldn't perform field sobriety tests and his blood-alcohol level was measured at 0.214 percent, more than twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent.
"That's the blood-alcohol level when you're pretty firmly planted in a chair and you can't do much - and yet he was out operating his car," Glen said.
In recommending the six-month jail term, Glen said, "at this point, we're not talking about rehabilitation so much as we're talking about sending a message the defendant needs to be punished."
"We also have an obligation to show the community at large we take this very seriously," she said.
Dunn asked for a shorter jail term for Phanphongsa.
As part of his driver's license revocation following his arrest last year, Phanphongsa has been allowed to drive one vehicle that has an ignition interlock device installed to measure blood-alcohol level before the vehicle will start, Dunn said.
"He's demonstrated over the last year that he's not drinking and driving," Dunn said.
"What I have done is stupid," Phanphongsa said in court. "I realize I need to change my life, to be better."
Bissen said Phanphongsa must have said the same thing after his first DUI arrest in 2003, only to be followed by DUI arrests in 2005 and 2007.
Phanphongsa also has convictions for abuse in 1995 and disorderly conduct in 2009.
"As unlucky as you have been growing up . . . as much as we want to find some sort of connection to this, one may not have anything to do with the other," Bissen told Phanphongsa. "As unlucky as you have been to have been born in that situation is as lucky as you have been not to have killed somebody by now."
After reviewing letters to the court, including from his employer, Bissen told Phanphongsa, "By all accounts, you're a good person."
But the judge said Phanphongsa had been given chances after his three prior DUI convictions, serving a 15-day jail term for his 2007 conviction.
Bissen said he was honoring a plea agreement between the defense and prosecution in sentencing Phanphongsa to jail and probation instead of prison.
A mandatory revocation of his driver's license was ordered for five years.
* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.