TAMPA — A decade-old mistake by the state motor vehicles department allowed a man who drove drunk and killed a woman to get back behind the wheel with a valid driver's license, a top official said Thursday.
William Edward Ham, 31, was issued a license one month after leaving prison last year — despite a judge's order that revoked his driving privileges for life.
The St. Petersburg Times brought the error to light Wednesday after Ham was arrested again, this time for driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.18 percent, more than double the level at which the state presumes a person is impaired.
On Thursday, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles took away Ham's license for good.
"We regret that we weren't more diligent a decade ago to make sure we corrected that inconsistency," said Dave Westberry, the department's deputy executive director.
On Oct. 21, 1998, Ham slammed his car into the back of 36-year-old Sandra Louise Allen's car, causing her to hit a power pole. Allen, a secretary for the Florida Department of Corrections, died at the scene at Bloomingdale Avenue and Ivy Boulevard in Brandon.
Ham pleaded guilty to DUI manslaughter. Hillsborough Circuit Judge Barbara Fleischer sentenced him to 10 years in prison and four years and seven months of probation. She told him not to drink alcohol and permanently revoked his driver's license.
But on Feb. 28, 2008, the state issued Ham a license anyway.
How did that happen?
Simply put, someone didn't read the traffic citation correctly.
On the back, the citation clearly states the lifetime revocation ordered by the court. But on the front, there is a reference to DUI-serious bodily injury, which requires a three-year license revocation.
Back in 1999, Westberry said, only the front part ended up in the state's records.
Someone should have noted the discrepancy — you wouldn't get a lifetime revocation for a conviction of DUI-serious bodily injury — and asked more questions, Westberry said.
"We should have taken additional steps to reconcile that," he said.
Department officials were unaware of the oversight until a Times reporter brought it to their attention. They quickly fixed Ham's records.
By then, Ham had already been arrested again. About 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, Tampa police say, an officer found him either passed out or asleep behind the wheel of his car, which was stopped at a red light. The officer had to tap him on the shoulder to rouse him, and when she asked for his license, he tried to hand her a wad of $20 bills, according to police reports.
Ham now faces charges of violating his probation and driving under the influence. He remained jailed Thursday without bail.
Sandy Allen, the dead woman's mother, didn't even know Ham was out of prison until she got the news about his latest arrest. Then came the information about the license he wasn't supposed to have.
Allen, 64, didn't think much of the department's explanation for the oversight.
"I think it's pretty lousy that they made the mistake, and now they're just writing it off," she said Thursday, sounding weary over the phone.
Westberry said motor vehicle officials have worked closely with the state's courts during the past decade to move to an electronic reporting system that improves accuracy and takes the guesswork out of trying to interpret paper documents. The system also alerts the department about an offender's jail or prison time, another piece of information it didn't have in Ham's case.
In 2007, law enforcement officers wrote 5.2 million citations in Florida, Westberry said.
"Obviously, we want to get them all right," he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, one powerful advocacy group doesn't favor the current practice of stripping licenses forever from the worst drunken driving offenders. The strategy doesn't work, said Don Murray, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Florida.
Murray suspects Ham would have driven whether he had a license or not.
"We have reason to believe that most people with permanently revoked licenses … end up driving without a license and no insurance," he said.
He argues that technology offers better ways of dealing with the problem. MADD is lobbying for a bill to be filed with the Legislature this session that would revoke licenses for repeat DUI offenders and others for a period of time, but would then restore them and require the offenders' vehicles to be equipped with ignition interlock devices that prevent a car from starting if the driver has too much alcohol in his system.
"We can't rely on their best intent," Murray said. "We have to rely on the technology to keep us safer."
Colleen Jenkins can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3337.