Bill would loosen penalties for some repeat DUIs

Posted: Thursday, May 06, 2004

JUNEAU A lawmaker who sponsored legislation that cracks down on drunken drivers three years ago is now trying to give some of them a break.

Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, is pushing a bill to let repeat drunken drivers escape the full wrath of the current law if their previous convictions are more than 15 years old.

''We wanted to show a little bit of compassion and understanding about people, particularly if there's a long period between those offenses,'' Rokeberg said in arguing for the provisions recently on the House floor.

He attached the changes to a bill that would require some convicted drunken drivers to install devices on their cars that cause the ignition to lock if their blood alcohol level is too high.

Cindy Cashen of the Juneau chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving is not happy with Rokeberg's proposal.

She said she has no sympathy for people caught driving under the influence multiple times, regardless of how long it has been since their last conviction.

''They act as if the third time they got caught was the third time they drove drunk,'' Cashen said. ''What studies show is that drunk drivers drive between 200 and 2,000 times before they get caught.''

The proposed changes deal with what are called ''lookback'' provisions of the state's driving under the influence laws.

Under current state law, sentences and fines get progressively tougher each time a driver is convicted.

The penalty for a first offense is a $1,500 fine and a three-day jail sentence. A second offense means a $3,000 fine and a 20-day sentence, and a third results in a $4,000 fine and a 60-day sentence.

Before 2001, a previous offense was one that had occurred within the last 10 years. Convictions older than that were not counted if someone was caught again.

In 2001, following a series of high-profile drunken driving accidents in Anchorage, Rokeberg introduced bills to toughen the state's DUI laws, including raising the fines for DUIs and eliminating what was called the ''10-year lookback'' for deciding if someone was to be sentenced as a repeat offender.

State law now mandates that any DUI in a person's past counts in deciding whether they should be sentenced as a repeat offender.

But Rokeberg said he's had calls from a couple of people and has talked to some defense attorneys who believe someone with two DUI's over a 30-year period should not be treated as harshly as someone caught driving drunk twice in two years.

''It's an issue of equity and fairness,'' Rokeberg said.

Amanda Wilson, an aide to Rokeberg, said Alaska's lookback provisions are tougher than those in all but one other state surveyed by the National Council of State Legislatures.

Rokeberg would change the law to count a DUI conviction as a repeat offense only if it happens within 15 years of the prior offense.

MADD has proposed a compromise amendment that would give a break to a second-time offender if more than 15 years had passed since the first offense.

But all third-time DUI offenders would get the same sentence, regardless of how much time had elapsed between arrests, under the MADD proposal.

''They get two chances,'' Cashen said. ''Two chances to endanger everybody's life on the road. But the third time, enough's enough. Deal with your alcohol issue.''

An attempt to pass a similar amendment to the bill narrowly failed on the House floor.

The bill moved through the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday morning without the MADD amendment. Committee member Sen. Hollis French, D-Anchorage, said there was support for the change, but there were technical problems with the wording of the amendment that needed to be fixed.

Rather than slow down the bill, the committee moved it on to the Senate Finance Committee, with the expectation that the issue will be debated there.

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