BELLEVUE, Ohio - James Sieger is the first to tell you: He should be in jail.
He drinks. A lot. In his words, "at least a case a day."
Yet, despite drunken-driving convictions that span three years, four municipal courts, and five police agencies, Mr. Sieger hasn't been able to serve his two most recent jail sentences. The reason: jail overcrowding.
"They won't take me," he said while sipping a Milwaukee's Best Ice beer recently at his home. "I don't want to go [to jail], but yeah, I should."
Mr. Sieger, 42, owes time in Erie and Sandusky county jails for drunken-driving convictions. He has shown up at least six times to serve his six months of remaining jail time. Each time, he's been turned away.
It's a matter of prioritizing, said Todd Dempsey, Erie County jail administrator. Most of the 106 beds are needed to house inmates awaiting court hearings, leaving 30 beds for convicted inmates.
Mr. Sieger has been turned away there at least four times, and there's a waiting list of about 250 inmates scheduled to serve time, Mr. Dempsey said.
The waiting game
"If I've got an attempted aggravated drug trafficker facing 180 days and a DUI offender facing 10 days, what's my priority?" he asked.
Bellevue Municipal Judge Kenneth Fox said he knows the Erie County jail has overcrowding problems. In fact, Mr. Sieger had approached him about the problems earlier this year.
The judge said he agreed to suspend six months of Mr. Sieger's most recent one-year sentence in the Sandusky County jail and allow him to serve the remaining six months concurrently with time he owes in Erie County.
But Judge Fox was surprised to learn that the Sandusky County jail also has turned away Mr. Sieger - on May 15 and June 5.
"I thought he was in jail now," the judge said.
A string of trouble
Mr. Sieger's problems with drinking and driving are so severe that his license has been revoked 14 times by judges and by the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles, which now lists him as a "habitual alcoholic."
It began with a series of tickets over three winter days in 2002.
On Jan. 10, 2002, a Ohio Highway Patrol trooper found Mr. Sieger's vehicle - driverless but with its motor running - in a Bellevue yard. Mr. Sieger said he'd swerved to avoid a pole as he was backing into a driveway across the road. The car stalled, and Mr. Sieger reached under the hood to manually start the engine. The car lurched forward and Mr. Sieger fell into the street. He was charged with failing to control his vehicle.
The following day, Mr. Sieger drove off the side of the road in rural Seneca County. A trooper conducted a breath test. The results: a 0.144 percent blood-alcohol content, above the then-legal limit of 0.10 percent.
The next day, Mr. Sieger struck a mailbox and went into another ditch in Seneca County. He staggered to a trooper's car, passed out on the way to the Seneca County jail, and registered a 0.124 percent blood-alcohol content, according to authorities.
The three days behind the wheel netted him two drunken-driving tickets, several days in the Seneca County jail, and orders to attend driver's and alcohol-intervention programs.
Six months later, he was in a squad car again in Erie County. On June 21, 2002, a Perkins Township police officer stopped Mr. Sieger. This time, he registered a 0.173 percent blood-alcohol content. He was released to a sober driver, according to the police report.
A month later, shortly after noon on July 27, 2002, he'd turned left in front of a pickup in Tiffin, clipping the truck and fleeing the scene. Two hours later, Findlay officers reported that they had stopped Mr. Sieger and found an unopened, cool can of beer in the car and the odor of alcohol.
They took him to the Hancock County jail, where a "combative" Mr. Sieger refused a breath test, telling an officer, "For your own good, you better lock me up," a police report stated.
Convicted of drunken driving in Findlay, he served about 95 days of a 180-day sentence before he was granted early release.
Next scheduled to serve 60 days in Erie County, he showed up at the jail for the first time on Nov. 4, 2003. It was full. He was given a new date to return. Three more times, the same thing happened. By his fifth appearance date on Feb. 8, 2004, he didn't bother.
On New Year's Day this year, the outstanding 60 days he owed for the Perkins Township arrest caught up with him - almost - during a fifth DUI arrest.
Bellevue police Sgt. Don Miller was on patrol along Belle Avenue about 8:30 p.m. when his car was nearly sideswiped by an oncoming driver.
Sergeant Miller stopped the suspect car. Inside, Mr. Sieger reeked of alcohol. Tobacco juice dribbled down his coat. His eyes were glassy; his speech slurred. Beer cans lay on the floor.
Mr. Sieger refused to submit to a field sobriety test and a breath test.
"He's a frequent flier," Sergeant Miller told The Blade. "This guy knew the routine."
The sergeant discovered that Mr. Sieger was wanted for the Perkins Township case and handed him over.
But Erie County jail records show that Mr. Sieger's stay there was 58 minutes that night. He was released.
Three weeks later, a judge agreed to run the outstanding Perkins Township sentence with the Bellevue case, for which Mr. Sieger had been given a one-year sentence that eventually was reduced to the six months.
He is scheduled to report again to the Sandusky County jail on July 11 to serve that time.
Doug Scoles, executive director of Ohio's Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, said Ohio generally does a good job of locking up drunken drivers once they're convicted. Still, he said it's not surprising that a drunken driver is turned away from overcrowded jails.
Some people simply do not consider the nonviolent charge of driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol to be serious, even though the consequences can prove deadly. In fact, by last year, 16,149 of Ohio's drivers had five DUI convictions. Nearly as many have more than five convictions.
"We can take away their license plates," Mr. Scoles said of repeat offenders. "We can impound their vehicles, and we can give them a special license plate. We've done all that and at some point, there's only one thing left that has a deterrent value: Take them out of the community."
Mr. Sieger, for his part, said it's just not easy to quit drinking. His said reasons include his father's suicide and relationship tensions.
"I'm putting a whole bunch of people's world in a turmoil, and I understand this. I'm not dumb, I've been through [so much] counseling. I should be a counselor. But I can't quit drinking."
Contact Robin Erb at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6133.
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