By TJ Jerke, Forum News Service, Published April 02 2013
Lawmakers bemoan watered-down DUI billBISMARCK – Rep. Ed Gruchalla said the state needs to take a big step when it comes to cracking down on drinking and driving because “people don’t pay attention to baby steps.”
The Fargo Democrat said he thinks the Legislature’s approach to beefing up penalties for driving under the influence won’t be enough of a deterrent and doesn’t address the true problem of first-time DUI offenders, who make up two-thirds of the state’s drunken drivers.
The House voted down a Senate proposal Friday, leaving House Bill 1302 as the only other DUI bill. It was amended by a Senate committee Tuesday to make an increase in penalties less severe.
Sen. Tim Mathern, D-Fargo, said the bill that remains alive would be only a minor change in public policy.
“We need something a little more dramatic to get the attention of our culture,” he said. “There are positive things in the bill, but it’s not going to change drinking and driving.”
Gruchalla said he believes many lawmakers think there isn’t much the state can do to change the drinking culture.
“There are many excuses not to make changes,” he said.
He said the biggest excuse that has come out this session is the high costs associated with stiffer penalties and minimum mandatory sentences, with some arguing that a rapid increase in penalties will clog up courts and jails and require more employees.
HB 1302 was amended by the Senate Transportation Committee “to get significantly harder on DUIs while also not crippling local cities and judges,” said Sen. Kelly Armstrong, R-Dickinson, who carried the bill to the floor Tuesday.
He said the bill, which will likely be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee within the week, does create a deterrent and will help change drinking and driving behavior.
Under the amended HB 1302, a first offense would still be a Class B misdemeanor, but the penalty would increase from $250 to $500 and a mandatory two-day jail sentence or 20 hours of community service if a driver’s blood-alcohol content is more than 0.18.
The proposal would bump a second offense from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A, carrying an extra $500 fine, one year participation in the 24/7 alcohol program and 10 days in jail, an increase of five days.
The bill would create three new felonies to address harming an individual: criminal vehicular homicide, criminal vehicular injury and making a fourth DUI offense a felony.
The new statute would make killing someone a Class A felony with a three-year minimum sentence upon a first offense and a 10-year minimum mandatory for a second offense.
The requirements to participate in the 24/7 sobriety program would help change the behavior of an offender, since the person would be monitored and prevented from drinking, Armstrong said.
“If it doesn’t, you’re going to be in front of a judge and find yourself in jail,” Armstrong said.
The amended bill also asks for $360,000 to allow the Department of Human Services to fund an underage drinking prevention program.
But the initial fines are a far cry from what Mathern proposed. His bill sought to increase the first-offense penalty from a $250 fine to $5,000 and a mandatory 30 days in jail.
Gruchalla, who joined Mathern in co-sponsoring the failed Senate bill, has continually argued that the state needs to increase mandatory penalties for first offenses.
“If you don’t sharply attack the problem with upfront penalties, you’re treating the injury, not treating the problem,” he said.