With his latest arrest for driving while intoxicated in February, Ronnie Paul Hobgood knew he had relinquished control of his own destiny – perhaps for good.
It was the sixth time the 45-year-old Texan had been arrested for drunken driving. His other five arrests since 1990 had resulted in one death, five convictions and two stints in prison.
Now Hobgood was facing conviction number six in Montgomery County, Texas – a traffic-choked corridor north of Houston with a reputation for having dangerous roads and no-nonsense prosecutors willing to dole out some of the toughest DWI penalties in the state.
Hobgood’s lawyer, Bob Mabry, told The Washington Post that his client knew his “fate was sealed.”
“His demeanor was like that of a soldier who is a prisoner of war to a relatively nice military enemy,” Mabry told The Post. “He knew where he was going and he had every confidence he had the skills to survive there.”
“Many people in his situation whine, beg or complain – but none of that for him,” Mabry added. “I got the sense he knew he’d have decades to think about how he felt about everything he’d done, so why think about it now?”
On Monday, a judge sentenced Hobgood to 50 years in prison. He’ll be eligible for parole in 25 years at the age of 70, Montgomery County Prosecutor Brittany Litaker told The Washington Post.
She said Hobgood’s fourth conviction was for intoxication manslaughter, for which he served 16 years of a 20-year prison sentence before paroling out. Conviction number five sent him back to prison until he was released on parole in 2015.
Hobgood managed to stay out of trouble until February, when he crashed into two cars leaving a Montgomery County bar, in addition to jumping a curb and ignoring witnesses who tried to keep him from driving away, according to CBS affiliate KHOU.
Litaker noted that Hobgood’s last three DWI’s had resulted in him hitting somebody and that all occurred after he’d already killed somebody driving drunk.
“He’s clearly a danger,” Litaker told The Post.
During his arrest in February, she said, Hobgood’s blood alcohol level was .272 – more than three times the legal limit. Because Hobgood has been in prison twice before, he’s considered a habitual offender under Texas law, which means his minimum punishment in this case would be 25 years, Litaker said.
“This is a person who – anytime he’s not in custody – is drinking and driving and putting everyone at risk,” she told The Post. “The only thing you can do with somebody like that is to get them out of our community so they can’t hurt anybody else again.”
“In Montgomery County we don’t mess around with people who are dangerous like that,” she added. “We’re going to get them off the road.”
Hobgood’s half-century sentence isn’t the longest in Texas history – or even in recent Texas history. In June, NBC affiliate KFOR reported, a Montgomery County man was sentenced to life in prison following his ninth DWI conviction since 1980. After eight convictions, KFOR noted, Donald Middleton still had a valid driver’s license.
“He’s been to the penitentiary four separate times before he committed this last one, this ninth DWI that we sought life,” Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Justin Fowles told the station.
Texas led the nation in drunk driving deaths in 2015 with 1,446 fatalities, an eight percent increase from the year before, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The state had just over 99,000 DUI arrests and more than 71,000 convictions, the organization reported.
“We have learned through tragic events that drunk driving offenders continue to drive even after they have lost their driving privileges, too often with devastating consequences,” J.T. Griffin, MADD’s chief government affairs officer said in a statement to The Post. “Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia now have ignition interlock laws for first offenders, and California is considering legislation that could soon make it the 29th state.”
“We won’t stop until we get to all 50 states, because we know this technology is the best available tool to prevent repeat drunk driving,” the statement added.
Mabry told The Post that he anticipated Hobgood would receive a lengthy sentence, but he’s troubled by the idea that the sentence was based – not just on his most recent offense – but on previous offenses as well.
“When you increase punishment from previous offenses it’s not possible, philosophically, to separate that from double jeopardy, in my opinion,” Mabry said. “But the law in Texas says it’s not.”
He described his client as “Well-groomed, polite and business-like” and said he bore little resemblance to the enraged, intoxicated individual who was caught on tape during his most recent arrest bragging to police about his time in prison and acting “irrationally.”
He said he didn’t know for sure if his client was an alcoholic, but called it a “near certainty” anyone with that many DWI convictions had serious addiction issues.
By the time Mabry found himself representing Hobgood, there was little he could do for him, he said. He referred to his client as “a talkative fellow” and said that he had divulged so much information to authorities that his lawyers never had “much to work with.”
“If prosecutors had played back the videos and the recording and had people testify, then the jury would have thought the worst of him,” Mabry said, implying Hobgood’s sentence may have been even longer.
“We were stuck,” he added.