Dennis Malavasi almost could have walked away from his 13th conviction because California law limits how long prior DUI cases count toward tougher mandatory sentences
By DOUG IRVING / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
It was a charge that Malavasi knew all too well. He had been convicted a dozen times before of driving under the influence, court records show – a number that even veteran police and prosecutors had to recheck to believe.
Dennis Malavasi’s DUI record:
Dennis Malavasi was convicted of driving-under-the-influence offenses in 1976, 1979, 1986, 1987, twice in 1989, twice in 1991, 1993, 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2011. He was also convicted of possession of a controlled substance in 2005 and 2009 and driving with a suspended license in 2009.
Source: Orange County District Attorney’s Office; Superior Court records; California Department of Corrections
Yet California law almost let Malavasi off with nothing more than a misdemeanor for DUI number 13. If he had stayed out of trouble for just a year longer, all of his prior DUI arrests would have been too old to count against him under state mandatory-sentencing laws. He would have faced some time in the county jail, at most.
“It is extremely fortunate,” the prosecutor in his latest case wrote in a court memo, “that Defendant has not killed or seriously injured someone as a result of his behavior.”
Malavasi was months away from benefitting from a provision in California law that counts prior DUI convictions for only 10 years when it comes to calculating mandatory sentences. Most other states have similar time limits, meant to give offenders a chance to change their ways, but there’s a move now in California to entirely remove such look-back limits for DUIs.
The state senator leading that push points to people like Malavasi, described by one prosecutor as a one-in-a-million repeat offender.
Malavasi, 55, comes from Orange County sports royalty. His father, the late coach Ray Malavasi, led the then-Los Angeles Rams in Anaheim to their first Super Bowl in 1980. Years later, the younger Malavasi would write a jailhouse letter to a judge, pleading for leniency and a treatment for his addictions, on the back of an old printed profile of his father.
It was pain, Dennis Malavasi told judge after judge, that drove him to drink and drugs. He had compressed vertebrae in his back, a herniated disc, he explained in his handwritten letters from jail. He sought relief in a bottle, and paid the consequences his entire adult life.
Police, prosecutors, judges and juries all tried to stop him, records show. His drunken driving and addictions landed him in prison so often that hardly a year went by when he didn’t spend some time behind bars. A judge even ordered him to install a breathalyzing ignition-interlock device on his car, a punishment handed down to just 6 percent of convicted drunken drivers in Orange County. He got out of it with a sworn declaration to the court: He didn’t own a car.
Malavasi did not respond to requests for comment through his family and an attorney. His defense attorney declined to comment.
Records show that it was parole violations and a possession charge that cycled Malavasi back through the state prison system in recent years. He hadn’t had a drunken-driving conviction since late 2001 – until police found him nodding off behind the wheel of a pickup last summer 2010.
A neighbor had called police to a leafy neighborhood in Huntington Beach, complaining that the truck had made a dangerous, screeching U-turn. Malavasi later claimed he was moving into a new house, hadn’t been drunk when he drove, and had left the truck on so he could listen to the radio. He couldn’t stand straight by the time officers arrived. His blood-alcohol level was 0.24 percent, court records show – three times the legal limit to drive.
Repeat drunken drivers are supposed to face progressively harsher sentences for every new conviction – jail time, then prison time, then even more prison time. But California law bases those mandatory sentences only on prior convictions from the past 10 years.
Malavasi was about a year shy of hitting that mark when police picked him up for what would become his 13th conviction. If he had made it, nothing in the law would have required that he be treated any differently than a first-time offender at his sentencing. He would have faced little more than a fine, a suspended license and some time in jail, not several years in state prison.
“If that (prior) case would have dropped off, we would have been filing a misdemeanor,” Senior Assistant District Attorney Joe D’Agostino said. “This would have been the highest-grade misdemeanor we have,” he added – but Malavasi would not have faced anything more than a year in jail.
Most other states also set a limit on how long a drunken-driving conviction can be used against a repeat offender in calculating mandatory sentences. Ten years is a common window, said Frank Harris, state legislative affairs manager for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Defense attorneys argue that those laws recognize that a person caught driving drunk as a teenager, and then again in middle age, doesn’t have the same kind of problem as someone who blows 0.20 percent every other year.
“I don’t believe that we should give up on people,” said Joshua Dale, the executive director of the California DUI Lawyers Association.
But a bill introduced by state Sen. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet, would entirely remove such time limits on prior DUIs. It would mean that people convicted once of drunken driving would forever face tougher sentences if they get picked up for driving drunk again.
The Legislature has considered such a move before, according to a legislative analysis, but decided the 10-year window would take care of most habitual drunken drivers. Emmerson’s bill was held up without discussion this year because it almost certainly would exacerbate the state’s prison crowding.
Emmerson said he plans to try again next year, in part because of people like Malavasi. “This is exactly why I introduced this bill,” he said. “Those records do get wiped out after 10 years. People get by on much lesser counts.”
Malavasi, though, came up short. He still had his 2001 conviction, a felony, lingering on his record when a prosecutor rose and told the court after his latest arrest that he was a danger to society. The jury found him guilty; the judge gave him six years in prison but put that sentence on hold and ordered Malavasi to check into a voluntary treatment program.
He did – and then checked himself out a few months later, citing his health problems. His attorney was left to tell the judge earlier this month that even he wasn’t sure where Malavasi had gone. The judge signed a warrant for his arrest.
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