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Driving with a blood alcohol level more than three times the legal limit has earned a Rapid City man his 16th driving under the influence conviction and another stint in the South Dakota State Penitentiary.

Robert Groethe, 60, was given a two-year prison sentence on Aug. 13 for his June 19 DUI arrest, which occurred after Groethe hit a parked car outside Toby's Casino on East North Street in Rapid City, according to Deputy State's Attorney Sarah Morrison.

His blood alcohol level was .247 when Rapid City police officers took him into custody, Morrison said. 

"This man has clearly shown that he is a danger to the community," she said Monday. "We have almost a 35-year record of him drinking and driving in the Rapid City area."

His June 19 crash caused about $2,750 in damages to the vehicle he hit and his own, according to Tarah Heupel, Rapid City police spokeswoman. Police found Groethe at his home after he told a witness he was going home to get his insurance information, she said. He was originally accused of hit and run and driving on a revoked license on top of the DUI charge, Heupel said. 

The hit-and-run charge was not pursued and Morrison said she dropped the revoked license offense when he pleaded guilty to the DUI. 

Groethe started racking up DUIs with his first offense in 1977. Since then, he has been arrested 19 times for DUI, convicted of 16 with 11 of those being felony offenses, Morrison said. DUI arrests in 1980, 1981 and 1985 were dismissed, she said. 

Although Groethe is a chronic DUI offender, Morrison could only use prior convictions in 2005 and 2010 to enhance his sentence to a third-offense felony DUI, she said. State law puts a 10-year limit on calculating DUI sentences. 

The law does extend past that 10-year time limit if the offender served prison time during the prior 10 years, which Groethe did. He served a little over a year for his 2005 offense, but that additional time was not enough to extend the look-back period to his 1997 convictions, Morrison said. 

So despite Groethe's long record of driving intoxicated, Seventh Circuit Court Judge Janine Kern could only levy a two-year sentence against him, Morrison said. He was to be taken to the state penitentiary after Kern signed the judgment on Aug. 15; he will be eligible for parole after serving eight to 10 months, she said. 

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Morrison was pleased Judge Kern gave Groethe the full sentence, but said his case is a prime example of the restrictions of the state statute. 

"I wish that the statutory wording provided for a longer look back," Morrison said. "Mr. Groethe’s history is a perfect example of why that's important."

Lila Doud, the president of Pennington County's Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter, agreed with Morrison and called for stronger legislation. 

"Maybe we need lifetime DUIs instead of dropping off after 10 years," said Doud, who also suggested that ignition interlock devices become a part of DUI sentences. 

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Doud attended Groethe's sentencing as she does all chronic offenders and was pleased he was sent to prison since he has demonstrated on numerous occasions that he cannot stop driving under the influence. 

"We need him off the streets," Doud said. "I was very thankful that the judge put him back in prison because that is where he needs to be."

Although Groethe's DUI conviction numbers are high, he does not hold the county record, Morrison said. 

Jerry Zeller, referred to at times as Mr. DUI, is believed to have set the record with his total number of DUI convictions reaching the high teens to low 20s and even more arrests, Morrison said.

Since Zeller's convictions occurred in numerous states, the exact number is difficult to track down, she said. 

Zeller died in a house fire in 2008. Fire officials believed that Zeller may have fallen asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand, according to Journal archives.

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Contact Holly Meyer at 394-8421 or holly.meyer@rapidcityjournal.com

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