Man has 15 DUI convictions. Now he faces 30 years in prison.

  • Christopher Clingingsmith of Rolling Meadows has numerous DUI convictions dating back to 1987.

    Christopher Clingingsmith of Rolling Meadows has numerous DUI convictions dating back to 1987.

  • Christopher Clingingsmith, who prosecutors say has 15 DUI convictions, leaves the Rolling Meadows courthouse after an appearance in February.

      Christopher Clingingsmith, who prosecutors say has 15 DUI convictions, leaves the Rolling Meadows courthouse after an appearance in February. Joe Lewnard | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 4/24/2018 4:52 PM

Christopher Clingingsmith was forbidden to drive.

The judge hearing his 2017 driving under the influence case prohibited it as a condition of setting bail. The state of Illinois took away his license years ago for DUI convictions prosecutors say number 15 and date back to 1982.

 

Yet, authorities say, he got back behind the wheel.

That's where Arlington Heights officers report they found him around 6 a.m. March 17, leading to his arrest on a charge of driving without a license near the scene of a one-car crash at White Oak Drive and New Wilke Road. Clingingsmith said he drove there to aid his wife, who his attorney said was involved in the crash.

Prosecutors say Clingingsmith presented an Illinois driver's license that turned out to be fake.

Back in court a few days later, Clingingsmith, through attorney Amy Seamann, told the court he'd been in treatment for alcohol abuse, but that didn't sway Cook County Judge Marc Martin. Citing fears for the community's safety, Martin revoked Clingingsmith's bail in his DUI case.

For now, Clingingsmith is off the streets.

Breaking the law

Clingingsmith, of Rolling Meadows, was one of 848 defendants charged with DUI last year in suburban Cook County.

But his case stands out for the number of convictions he has accumulated.

Prosecutors recently raised the tally to 15, up from the 14 convictions they cited during his bond hearing before Cook County Judge Joseph Cataldo last year on charges he was intoxicated when he struck a party bus on June 7, 2017, in Des Plaines.

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"Unbelievable," Cataldo said in response to prosecutors' recitation of Clingingsmith's criminal background, which spans 36 years and includes arrests in at least 10 Illinois counties.

Clingingsmith is due back in court Wednesday on class X felony charges. Reserved for defendants with six or more felony DUI convictions, the class X -- enacted into law Jan. 1, 2006 -- carries a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison upon conviction.

The 52-year-old has pleaded not guilty. Initially freed after posting $40,000 of the $400,000 bail set by Cataldo, Clingingsmith has been in Cook County jail since Martin revoked his bail last month.

How was Clingingsmith able to get behind the wheel? The answer in part lies with the laws that were more lax at the time of his earlier convictions.

Court records show seven misdemeanor DUI convictions between 1982 and 1992. During last year's bond hearing, prosecutors noted felony DUI convictions from 1993, 1997, 2002 and 2007. A 1999 DUI conviction was reversed on appeal, prosecutors said.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

His most recent felony convictions resulted from three DUIs he received in Will County in 2005. Although those cases concluded in 2007, Clingingsmith was sentenced under the laws in place in 2005, when he was charged. Illinois Department of Corrections records indicate he served five years and two months for those class 2 felonies.

But even if the class X sentencing had been available in 2005, Clingingsmith would not have been eligible, having only three previous felony DUI convictions at that time.

In total, he has spent 15 years, five months and eight days in custody for sentences that ranged from one to seven years. Clingingsmith has had no convictions since 2012, records show.

For some offenders with multiple DUI convictions, even strict laws and lengthy sentences have little effect.

"The public is under the assumption that these people are driving legally, and they're not," said Rita Kreslin, executive director of the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, a Schaumburg-based victims advocacy organization.

Illinois Department of Corrections records show Clingingsmith's felony convictions have been for class 2 and class 4 offenses, which carry maximum sentences of seven years and three years in prison, respectively. The records do not indicate if his convictions resulted from trials or plea agreements.

Prosecutors offered 15 years in prison in exchange for Clingingsmith's guilty plea to the 2017 Des Plaines DUI, court records show. The same records show his attorney requested a four-year sentence.

Prosecutors have discretion in how they charge cases and sometimes amend DUI and other charges in exchange for a guilty plea.

According to DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin, who spoke generally and not about Clingingsmith's case specifically, the strength of the prosecution's case, the availability of witnesses and the mitigation offered by the defense are factors prosecutors weigh when considering a plea agreement.

Prosecutors consider "how strong a case is ... the risks of going to trial, and you make an evaluation," he said.

Still back on the road

For some offenders, "there's nothing anyone can do to keep them out of a vehicle," despite multiple DUI convictions and suspended or revoked licenses, said Brenda Glahn, an attorney with the secretary of state's office.

The secretary of state offers an option for offenders willing to adhere to certain restrictions to ensure they drive sober, though there's no indication Clingingsmith ever applied for it.

An offender who participates in an administrative hearing, undergoes drug and alcohol evaluation and treatment, and "proves to us (he or she) wouldn't be a threat to public safety or welfare" may drive on a restricted permit, Glahn said.

To obtain one, that person must also install in his or her vehicle a breath alcohol ignition interlock device that also includes a camera, she said. Offenders with two or more DUI convictions must install the device to drive legally, Glahn said.

An offender blows into the device to start the car, then blows into it periodically over the course of the trip to keep the vehicle operating, Glahn said.

About 8,300 Illinoisans have the devices in their vehicles, Glahn said, adding the number is evenly split between first-time offenders and repeat offenders.

"The theory is that if we know the individuals are going to continue to drive, let's at least make sure they're not driving drunk," she said.

But the device isn't tamper-proof.

"Offenders are ingenious. No matter what type of technology you put in the vehicle, they'll try to circumvent that," said Glahn, who emphasizes the device is not a panacea.

"Our focus has been on rehabilitation and treatment," she said, "a kind of behavioral change in the offender as to how (he or she) looks at a DUI."

According to Seamann, Clingingsmith has spent the last few months undergoing treatment for alcohol abuse. It wasn't clear if he was in treatment at the time of the June 7, 2017, crash, in which authorities reported no injuries. Clingingsmith had already left the scene by the time Des Plaines police officers arrived, authorities said, but he was stopped a short time later by Arlington Heights police on the 100 block of South Arlington Heights Road.

According to the bond hearing transcript, Clingingsmith "exited the car, had trouble walking and standing." He gave police a fictitious Illinois driver's license with his name and driver's license number that contained fake issue and expiration dates, prosecutors said.

Police observed "an odor of alcoholic beverage on his breath as well as bloodshot, glassy eyes" along with "clues of consumption, clues of impairment," according to the transcript.

Clingingsmith, who authorities say admitted drinking seven beers, was identified by witnesses as the man driving the vehicle that struck the bus, prosecutors said.

During his bond hearing, prosecutors chronicled Clingingsmith's prior convictions, which court and prison records show were from Bureau, DuPage, Kane, Lake, Livingston, Marshall, Peoria, Tazewell, Will and Woodford counties.

"Notwithstanding any previous encounters, every case rises and falls on its own facts," said defense attorney Sam Amirante, adding the presumption of innocence in Clingingsmith's case is as important as in any other. "We believe, in this particular case, he has a legitimate defense to present in court."

Sober-driving advocates say decades of stories about tragedies caused by drunken drivers, wrenching victim accounts and public service announcements have educated most people to the dangers of drinking and driving.

"It's not a question of education anymore," Kreslin said. "The general public gets it and know that the smart and safe thing to do is call a cab or get an Uber."

Most first-time DUI offenders are "mortified," Kreslin said. Those convicted stop driving, attend victim impact panels sponsored by groups like AAIM and serve out their sentences. But repeat offenders with numerous convictions fall into a different category, Kreslin said.

"Many have gone to prison, come out and they still get behind the wheel of a car," she said. "People who have a sickness like addiction don't have regard for their own life, let alone someone else's life."

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