House passes anti-drunk driving bill

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A bill that toughens fines and sentences for repeat drunken drivers and lowers the blood alcohol level at which a person is considered unfit to drive passed the House Sunday.

House Bill 4 also takes away drunken drivers' license plates, requires imprisoned offenders to get treatment and changes the name of the crime from driving while intoxicated to driving under the influence.

''It's not a silver bullet and will not end all drunk driving,'' said Rep. Norm Rokeberg, who sponsored the bill. ''This sends a very strong message to the people of the state of Alaska that we're trying to protect them and their public safety.''

House Bill 4 would bump the fine for a first offense from $250 to $1,500 and for a second offense from $500 to $3,000. Jail time for a second offense could increase from 20 to 30 days.

For a third offense the fine would jump from $1,000 to $4,000. And, if a person had three DUIs within 10 years it would be a felony, punishable by a fine of $10,000 and a minimum sentence of 180 days.

Under current law, a third DWI within five years is a felony, but if more than five years has passed a third DWI is a misdemeanor.

Also under House Bill 4, the blood alcohol level at which a person is considered to be driving under the influence would drop from .10 to .08 -- bringing Alaska in line with a federal law that requires states to lower their blood alcohol level or face losing federal transportation dollars.

The House on Sunday removed a provision in the bill that would have mandated that repeat drunken drivers' vehicles be seized or immobilized.

Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, D-Anchorage, said the provision didn't give judges the discretion to do what makes sense in individual cases and could deprive innocent family members of needed transportation.

Rokeberg tried to keep the provision in, saying Alaska law protects others who have an ownership interest in the car. The cities of Fairbanks and Anchorage already mandate forfeiture for repeat DWIs and it has worked well there, he said.

But Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, said a spouse whose name isn't on the title could be hurt by the provision.

The House turned down a suggestion by Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, to move back the effective date until January 2002. Scalzi said the later effective date would give the public more time to learn about the changes in the law.

Other House members, however, said the state shouldn't delay past July 1, 2001.

''I don't have a lot of sympathy for drunk drivers. I'm not really interested in ensuring we give them a little bit more time to understand that what they're doing is wrong,'' said Rep. Jim Whitaker, R-Fairbanks.

Although Rep. Eldon Mulder, R-Anchorage, voted for the bill, he did express concern that it upped the fines for first-time offenders. Alaska's laws dealing with first-time offenders already are effective, he said, adding that 73 percent don't get picked up again.

''By putting this is place, I think we may have gone too far,'' Mulder said.

Rokeberg said one of the recommendations of an Anchorage DWI task force was taking Alaska Permanent Fund dividends from first-time offenders. Increasing the fine to $1,500 comes close to doing that, he said.

The House on Sunday also passed House Bill 132, a measure aimed at bootlegging in rural Alaska. That bill also contains provisions to lower the blood alcohol level for drunken driving to .08 and make a third DWI within 10 years a felony.

Rokeberg said both bills passed for strategic reasons. They give the Senate options to choose from in deciding whether to pass anti-drunken driving legislation in the final nine days of the legislative session.

Rep. Bev Masek, R-Willow, gave notice that she may bring both bills up for reconsideration today, which means they will be delayed a day before moving on to the Senate.

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