They're Still Driving!

A Fatal Crash The System Failed to Stop

Drunken Driving Arrests Couldn’t Curb a Danger

By Henry K. Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer

Monday, March 19, 2001

Lyle Eric Norbert has a problem when he gets behind the wheel of a
car, police say.

Norbert, 41, of Suisun City has had his license suspended six times.
And although he has been arrested four times on suspicion of drunken
driving, he has only one such conviction — a misdemeanor — because he
“never hurt anybody,” his attorney said.

“I’m just too drunk, and I made a big mistake,” Norbert told
California Highway Patrol officers after leading them on a chase in 1999.
“I always run from the police, but I always get caught because I’m
slow.”

His luck changed early Wednesday, police say, when Norbert once more
failed to stop for CHP officers near El Cerrito, this time leading them
on a high- speed chase into Berkeley. It ended when Norbert’s rented 2001
Pontiac Bonneville ran a red light and smashed into a car driven by
Theodore Abraham Resnick, 33, of San Francisco. Resnick died
instantly.

Now, Norbert is being held without bail on numerous charges that
include murder, enraging many who wonder how the criminal justice system
couldn’t keep a problem driver like Norbert off the road.

“Considering his driving record, one would think that one would not
have to be convicted of a felony in order to undergo some serious form of
punishment,” Resnick’s brother, Don Resnick, 36, of Sylvania, Ohio, said
yesterday, hours after he and his family buried his brother in Staten
Island, N.Y., where the siblings grew up.

“Speaking with my family, we’ve talked about how driving is not a
right in this country — it’s a privilege,” he said. “This man has abused
this privilege way beyond the capacity that a person should be able
to.”

A review by The Chronicle of court and state Department of Motor
Vehicles records shows that authorities tried to keep Norbert off the
street.

Norbert, who has previous convictions for weapons and drugs, was able
to drive after four drunken-driving arrests because he either made bail
or failed to show up in court or for counseling sessions, records show.
And in at least two cases, Norbert pleaded guilty to lesser charges of
reckless driving, resulting in fines and probation.

That allowed Norbert, time and again, to get behind the wheel of a
car. In some cases, the cars were rented by others. In the car involved
in the fatal crash, police are not saying who rented the vehicle only
that it was not Norbert.

Norbert’s longtime attorney, Pam Herzig of San Francisco, declined to
comment on her client’s driving history after he was charged with murder
Friday.

SIX LICENSE SUSPENSIONS

Drunken driving, usually treated as a misdemeanor if no one is
seriously hurt or killed, becomes a felony on the fourth conviction
within seven years.

But Norbert has only one drunken driving conviction on his record — a
misdemeanor, since no one was hurt or killed — even though the DMV has
suspended his license six times since 1997 for having an excessive blood-
alcohol level.

An Oakland traffic officer, echoing sentiments by others in law
enforcement, said there was just no way an overburdened criminal justice
system could deter a problem driver who persisted in driving a car — any
car.

“We’ve got more people driving on suspended licenses in the East Bay
than ever before,” said the officer, who declined to be named. “We have
no control over them buying a $500 vehicle from a private party.”

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, tried unsuccessfully to pass
what he called a “Deadly Driver” bill in 1997 after a man with a history
of driving violations caused a six-car pileup that left an Antioch mother
dead.

Torlakson said legislation that would combine jail time and
rehabilitation programs could make a difference. He acknowledged,
however, that “hard core” cases like that of Norbert could render such
programs useless.

Norbert’s driving problems date back to Halloween 1997, when he
crashed a white Ford Mustang into five parked cars near 26th and Noe
streets in San Francisco and fled the scene, according to police.

“I don’t know who was driving,” Norbert told police, his eyes
bloodshot. Although he was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving, he
pleaded guilty to reckless driving and was placed on three years’
probation.

On Jan. 24, 1999, Norbert, driving another Mustang, was spotted by the
CHP speeding on eastbound Interstate 80 in Crockett. Once again, he was
arrested on suspicion of drunken driving — his pupils dilated, his eyes
red and watery, the CHP report said.

He made bail and, seven days later, led the CHP on a 16-mile,
12-minute pursuit on I-80 in a rented 1999 Pontiac Grand Am at speeds of
up to 90 mph. Norbert, allegedly drunk, whizzed past the toll booth at
the Carquinez Bridge and was rammed three times by the CHP before he was
stopped near his home, records show.

JUDGE EXPRESSED CONCERN

In that case, Herzig asked in court that Norbert be released on his
own recognizance, saying that her client would be willing not to drive
and that his girlfriend would keep the keys away from him.

But a wary Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Samuel Mesnick,
asked: “How will you enforce that? The Great Arm in the sky? Two DUIs one
week apart does not sound like much control. The driving sounds like
somebody was lucky not to be hurt.”

Mesnick set bail at $10,000. In July 1999, Norbert pleaded guilty to a
reduced charge of reckless driving for the Jan. 24, 1999, incident and
was fined $275.

On Nov. 3, 2000, Norbert logged another drunken-driving arrest while
driving a rented Daewoo Leganza. He failed to make a court appearance,
and a $30,000 warrant was issued for his arrest. He also failed to show
up in court for the Jan. 31, 1999, incident. A no-bail warrant was
issued, and his probation was revoked.

After one of his arrests, Norbert was angry but resigned. Spewing
profanity at CHP officers, he said: “You got me.”

Chronicle Staff Writer Jaxon Van Derbeken contributed to this
report.

E-mail Henry
K. Lee
.

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