Tougher DUI laws?

Representative proposes stiffer penalties

Local law enforcement officials have mixed views on the move to enact stricter laws for repeat offenders who drive under the influence.

The House Appropriations Committee on Thursday unanimously passed a bill to create stricter penalties for drunk drivers in Colorado. Under current law, any DUI is considered a misdemeanor offense regardless of the number of times a person is arrested for the offense.

House Bill 1214, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Waller R-Colorado Springs, would make such an offense a class 5 felony for some repeat offenders.

Montezuma County Sheriff Dennis Spruell said, while the house bill would be a good thing if it becomes law, it will not stop many people who drive after drinking.

He said if an individual continues this type of behavior after three to four DUI convictions, there is not much that can be done to convince that person to not drive after drinking.

"I do not think a felony charge will be a big (deterrent)," Spruell said.

The flip side, he said, is there are some individuals who have an addiction to alcohol and find it extremely hard to stop.

"It's definitely an addiction," Spruell said. "If you already have three to four DUI convictions then you have a problem."

District Attorney Will Furse had been made aware of the proposed House bill and like Spruell said many individuals in the community are addicted to alcohol and are unable to stop drinking.

Furse said generally speaking, he is not an advocate of expanding felony sentencing laws because felony convictions carry lifelong consequences that act as serious impediments to one's schooling, employment, and even housing.

"I believe that felony convictions should be reserved for very serious acts of criminal wrongdoing; and most of those acts are covered by laws already on the books," Furse wrote in an email. "I adhere to a very "Jeffersonian" world view wherein personal liberty is emphasized and government intervention is used sparingly. That being said, DUI's affect more than just the consumer of alcohol and pose serious risks to the community at large."

Furse said a few years ago, the state legislature significantly expanded DUI laws in which an offender can receive upwards of two years in jail for driving under the influence.

"I do not believe that threatening DUI offenders with a felony conviction and possible prison sentence would accomplish anything more than what the misdemeanor law already provides," he said. "But there are ways where a district attorney can be creative in implementing additional consequences for repeat offenders without relying on the legislature."

He said this is why his administration has commenced "forfeiture" proceedings against habitual drunk drivers wherein with vehicles forfeiture as an additional consequence of their actions and sell them at auction.

"If someone knows that their car could be confiscated because of their actions, I think they might think twice before getting behind the wheel," Furse wrote in the email.

He said Deputy District Attorney Lynda Carter has been instrumental in implementing this forfeiture protocol for crimes ranging from habitual DUI to methamphetamine distribution.

"I believe that when someone's liberty and property is at stake, they will think long and hard about their actions, and hopefully, such will deter future criminals acts from occurring," Furse wrote in the email.

Waller in a press release said that this is an issue that affects the safety of all Colorado citizens.

Colorado is one of five states that does not have a felony conviction for DUIs. The bill would make three DUI or DWAI convictions within a seven-year-period a felony. Similarly, four DUI or DWAI convictions in a lifetime would also constitute a felony.

By contrast, a third DUI conviction in the state of Nevada is a felony and results in a mandatory minimum sentence of one year in prison.

According to a recent study, from 2005 to 2007 there was an average of 31,011 alleged drunk drivers arrested annually in Colorado with roughly 10,000 repeat offenders.

During this time, the Colorado State Patrol reported that for officer-involved instances, 40 percent of DUI caused crashes resulted in a fatality. In some cases, offenders had 20 or more previous DUI convictions.

In Montezuma County, repeat DUI offenders are extremely common with former district attorney Russell Wasley saying he saw this constantly while serving as the DA.

First-time DUI offenders in Colorado right now receive a jail sentence of five days to one year in jail, but the normal five-day sentence is almost always suspended. Part of the sentence usually includes 48 to 96 hours of community service and up to two years of probation.

After receiving a unanimous vote of approval from both Democrats and Republicans alike, House Bill 1214 is moving to the House Appropriations Committee for further consideration.

michaelm@cortezjournal.com