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She Turned Her Life Around After A String Of DUIs. Now She Might Be Sent Back To Prison Amid A Coronavirus Outbreak

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office waited four years to charge Danielle Sutherland for one of the DUIs. After serving time for the others, she received treatment for her substance use issues and pursued a degree.

Danielle Sutherland in her Navy uniform, left, and today, right.

Five years ago, Danielle Sutherland was arrested for a string of DUIs while using prescription pills as a means to cope with being raped and honorably discharged from the Navy. In the years that followed, she pleaded guilty to each crime she was charged with, abided by the terms of her sentencing, and sought help. After getting out of prison in 2017, Sutherland began pursuing a degree in social work and stopped using pills. 

Now, Sutherland’s future is set to be derailed by her past: Last fall, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office filed charges for a DUI she committed in October 2015. As the coronavirus spreads through Arizona’s prisons, with 183 cases and at least four deaths to date, Sutherland faces a six-month sentence—and the prospect of being sent into the middle of an outbreak, in addition to having her graduation delayed, her sobriety challenged, and her support system upended.

I’ve worked extremely hard over the past five years to better myself,” Sutherland told The Appeal. “I went above and beyond. I got sober, I’m getting my degree, I’m working to make things better. It’s literally like [Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel] is slapping me in the face, and it hurts.”

Sutherland faced 10 years at trial; she opted to plead guilty to one count of endangerment and one count of driving under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, and was told she would get a six-month sentence instead. The final call will be made at her sentencing on Aug. 3. Although states like Arizona are reopening, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have spiked in recent days, and experts predict there will be a second wave of cases this fall.

So far, about 16 percent of Arizona prisoners who have been tested for COVID-19 have come back positive. And that most likely does not reveal the full extent of the outbreak—only about 2.7 percent of the more than 41,000 people incarcerated in Arizona state prisons have been tested so far.

The county attorney’s office has taken some actions to reduce the number of people being sent to jails and prisons during the pandemic. But on Apr. 28, Adel dismissed calls to reduce the prison population by releasing certain nonviolent offenders as an attempt to exploit “COVID-19 to release inmates and push their prison agenda.”  

Adel said she instructed prosecutors to assess submissions for charges from law enforcement case by case, “prioritized by the nature of the crime, the criminal history of the offender,” and to “balance this information with the need to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”

But when asked whether the county attorney’s office would consider alternatives to incarceration in Sutherland’s case, given her particular circumstances and the coronavirus outbreak, a spokesperson for Adel said, “Ms. Sutherland signed a plea agreement on March 6. Sentencing is set for Aug. 3, 2020. Any request for a change of this plea would need to be addressed with the court.”

Sutherland said she has attempted to get her sentence changed and only took a plea out of concern that she could face a far longer sentence if she went to trial. In April, Sutherland dismissed her attorney and began to represent herself. She contacted the prosecutor on her case and asked if he would consider modifying their plea agreement to a term of probation or home arrest.

“I think I’ve taken every avenue that I can,” Sutherland said. “Now it’s just waiting till sentencing and hoping that something comes up.”

In 2003, Sutherland joined the Navy and became a hospital corpsman. One day while stationed in Camp Pendleton, California, she was sent home sick with a migraine, Sutherland told The Appeal. Later, she said, her chief knocked on her door and said he had brought her some medicine, which she took. She said she doesn’t remember anything after that, until she woke up early the next morning with her chief on top of her.

At first, Sutherland tried to act as if nothing had happened. But as time wore on, she felt desperate to leave and was honorably discharged in 2005. In the years that followed, Sutherland said she turned to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to cope with what had happened to her. In 2010, following a series of misdemeanor DUI arrests in New Mexico, her family flew her out to Arizona and had an intervention. In the years that followed, she had a 10-month stint in rehab, and attended a military sexual trauma program in Long Beach, California.

Things took a turn for the worse when Sutherland abruptly stopped receiving counseling upon returning to Phoenix at the end of 2014. In January 2015, Sutherland was arrested for DUI in Phoenix and was later sentenced to probation. Five months later, she was arrested for driving under the influence again after she took Klonopin and rear-ended another person’s vehicle, according to court records from that case. While awaiting charges for that DUI, Sutherland was arrested for two aggravated assaults on healthcare practitioners while receiving treatment at a hospital in Phoenix within the span of two weeks. 

Police reports state that neither nurse was seriously injured. Neither sought restitution, and one nurse told police she felt probation and counseling would be an appropriate sentence. Sutherland pleaded guilty for those assaults. In September 2015, a judge ordered her to complete two years of supervised probation, complete anger management counseling and substance use treatment, and take drug tests.

A few weeks later, Sutherland got another DUI. According to an incident report from the Phoenix Police Department, Sutherland had driven up onto curbs and stopped in the middle of the street. Sutherland told police she had taken Prozac and Klonopin. Her probation for the aggravated assaults was revoked, but it was reinstated by December. Sutherland stuck with the terms of her probation in the months that followed. 

In September 2016, charges finally came for the June 2015 DUI. For that, Sutherland pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four months in prison and one year of supervised probation. When Sutherland got out of prison in the summer of 2017, she decided to make a change. She started receiving treatment for her substance use issues and underlying trauma, graduated from Phoenix College with an associate’s degree, then enrolled at Arizona State University to pursue a degree in social work. 

Sutherland had spent the two years since getting out of prison making significant changes to her life and sticking with them. But in September 2019, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office filed charges for the DUI Sutherland had committed four years earlier, when she was still spiraling out of control. 

When asked why it took so long for charges to be filed against Sutherland or whether it is typical to wait so long to file charges in such cases, a spokesperson for the county attorney’s office said she could not provide information.

I take full accountability for everything that I’ve done, but what hurts me the most is that Arizona statutes allow for mandatory sentencing up to seven years without looking at what’s been done since, and whether there’s any circumstances that could allow for probation or mitigated sentencing,” Sutherland told The Appeal. “It just pulled the rug out from under me.”

“I’d like to finish [my last courses at ASU] in the fall. Then my 40th birthday is January 16. It’s something that I’ve been looking forward to,” Sutherland said. 

“I’ve been looking forward to celebrating my 40th as a new person with this new chapter of my life,” she said. “Thinking that I could spend it in prison just kills me.”