Family questions DUI laws after loved one is killed by suspected drunk driver

THORNTON, Colo. — A Thornton family is fighting for change after their loved one was hit and killed by a suspected drunk driver while crossing a Thornton road last year. Specifically, the family was shocked to learn the incident could mark the suspect’s third DUI.

On the night of May 18, 2022, Thornton police reported a pedestrian was killed following a crash on W. 84th Avenue near Delaware Street. Family said the pedestrian was 52-year-old Cesar Estrada, and the past year without him has felt empty.

“It’s very hard to get out of bed in the morning, to do something with my life, knowing that I don’t have my dad anymore. I don’t have him to talk to, to laugh with,” said Cesar’s daughter, Angel Estrada. “Even though I have my family around, I feel very lonely without my dad.”

Thornton family wants justice for loved one killed by suspected drunk driver

Angel spoke to Denver7 while sitting next to her mother, Cesar’s ex-wife Erlinda Garcia. Cesar and Erlinda had been together for more than two decades.

“I miss him like crazy. We were separated, but we were friends,” Erlinda said. “I miss talking to him every day. I miss his laughter. I miss spending time with him.”

The family said Cesar walked to a bar off of W. 84th Avenue that night, and was crossing the street to go home when he was struck by the vehicle. The incident was not in a designated crosswalk, and the coroner’s report ruled Cesar’s death an accident.

“It was an accident, but he still killed him,” Erlinda said. “He [the suspect] called 911, and he did stop traffic from hitting Cesar again.”

A spokesperson for the 17th Judicial District, the district attorney’s office on the case, said the suspect is facing DUI and DUI per se charges.

“I’m frustrated because I feel like my dad isn’t getting the justice that he deserves,” Angel said. “That’s not fair at all for it to only be a DUI… I understand that they’re just trying to do their job. But I think that they need to look at the facts that my dad isn’t here, and he didn’t get up from that sidewalk that night.”

Perhaps what was most shocking for the family is when they said they learned this would mark the suspect’s third DUI.

“He should be held more accountable than just a DUI because it wasn’t just a DUI. A person died that night,” Erlinda said.

Denver7 reached out to the district attorney’s office about the case and received the following statement:

“We extend our deepest condolences to the loved ones of the individual who died in this accident. It is our duty in the District Attorney’s Office to make difficult charging decisions that require us to following the facts, the evidence, and the law. We understand and appreciate that sometimes those decisions are difficult for victim’s families to understand and accept. Prosecutors are ethically limited in what we can discuss as it relates to pending cases in our jurisdiction, but we can assure you we followed the evidence and the law in making this charging decision, and we will continue to do so in every case.”

17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office (Adams/Broomfield, CO)

“They’re gonna give him a slap on the wrist and he [the suspect] probably won’t drink for a few months, but he’s bound to get another DUI,” Erlinda said.

The coroner’s report noted Cesar struggled with alcoholism in his life.

“Alcohol found a way to take my dad away from me, one way or another,” Angel said.

Erlinda said Cesar also had three DUIs in his lifetime, which was one reason he was walking on the night he died.

“One chose to walk, and the other chose to drive,” Erlinda said. “One got killed, and the other one killed him.”

National research shows an average impaired driver has driven drunk over 80 times before their first arrest.

In general, Colorado law states a DUI becomes a felony charge the fourth time. Until then, most DUI charges are misdemeanors.

“One is too many,” said Fran Lanzer, the executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Colorado. “We know that drunk and drugged driving are 100% preventable 100% of the time. So, there’s never an excuse for even one DUI.”

Lanzer said MADD worked closely with legislators to get felony charges for repeat DUI offenders passed in 2015.

“Colorado was the 46th state in the country to pass the felony DUI law. So we’re not really leading the way here,” Lanzer said. “About half of states, a third DUI would be a felony DUI. So, we’re definitely in the bottom half when you’re looking overall.”

Lanzer said there is more that can be done to strengthen DUI laws in Colorado.

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“We know that last year, here in Colorado, 270 lives were taken on our roads because of suspected impaired driving drunk or drugged drivers,” Lanzer said.

MADD Colorado is working to pass HB23-1102, which Lanzer said would fund local DUI enforcement efforts like the ones just utilized for St. Patrick’s Day.

“This high-visibility DUI enforcement program is administered by the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and accounts for approximately 40% of DUI enforcement in Colorado,” said Lanzer.

Matthew Martin, a Colorado defense attorney, said DUI laws in Colorado are stricter than they may appear.

“It’s four in a lifetime [for a felony], which is pretty harsh,” Martin explained. “It is protecting defendants in some sense. I know some states have a felony on a third offense, but those states also limit what period of time they can look back in that person’s history to make that a felony.”

When asked about the specifics of the Estrada case, Martin said a driver under the influence does have a significantly reduced reaction time, but that prosecutors always take into consideration whether or not the suspect was cooperative with police and the criminal justice system.

“The fact that the person stuck around indicates to me that they didn’t feel that they were at fault frankly, especially, if they’re under the influence,” Martin said.

Martin continued to say Colorado laws are pretty harsh for repeat offenders.

“A lot of people feel anyone who hurt someone when they’ve been drinking and driving should be punished for the rest of their life,” Martin explained. “It doesn’t take into consideration the fact that it’s not an intentional crime… For a lot of people, it is a mistake.”

Denver7 inquired with the 17th Judicial District about the potential sentence for the suspect in the case related to Cesar, but was told it’s “rather complicated” since sentencing depends on very specific details related to every individual case.

The suspect’s next court date is a disposition hearing, currently set for April 25.

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