New rules could mean harsh penalties

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2001

Many drunken drivers and minors consuming alcohol will be subject to much harsher penalties under two bills recently signed by Gov. Tony Knowles.

There has been considerable publicity about the first bill, which lowers the legal blood alcohol limits for operators of cars, boats and other motorized vehicles. Effective as of Saturday, drivers whose blood alcohol measures .08 percent are presumed to be driving while intoxicated. That's down from the previous legal limit of .1 percent. (See related story, this page.)

But that is a minor change compared with others the new law contains, said Kenai Magistrate David S. Landry. One drastic change affects how far back in time the court will count prior convictions when it determines minimum sentences for drunken driving and refusal of blood-alcohol tests, Landry said.

Driving while intoxicated and refusing the tests are Class A misdemeanors. For a first offense, state law requires a fine of at least $250 and at least three days actually spent in jail, regardless of any suspended sentence. For a second offense, the law requires a fine of at least $500 and at least 20 days in jail. For a third offense, the minimums are a $1,000 fine and at least 60 days in jail.

It used to be the state looked back just 10 years for prior convictions, Landry said. But under the new law, for anyone charged on or after July 1, there is no time limit.

"When it comes to mandatory minimums, the court needs to know every conviction a person ever had in their life," Landry said.

Say a motorist had prior DWI convictions in 1965 and 1971. If he were charged June 1 and convicted under the old law, that would count as a first offense, with a minimum sentence of three days in jail.

But if he is charged today and convicted under the new law, that will count as a third offense, with a minimum sentence of 60 days in jail.

"You think of the difference between doing three days in jail versus 60 days. You're talking about a life-altering event. You think about people losing jobs," Landry said.

Young people no longer can assume that later in life their youthful offenses will be overlooked, he said. A drunken driving conviction at age 17 still will count in determining the minimum sentence for a conviction 60 years later.

There is another big change.

Alaska used to count the third drunken driving conviction within five years as a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison and a $50,000 fine. In addition to those maximum penalties, there also are minimum sentences for felony drunken driving. With two prior convictions, the minimum is 120 days in jail.

The new law -- which affects anyone charged July 1 or after -- changes the felony DWI look-back period from five years to 10. However, it counts no prior offenses that occurred before Jan. 1, 1996, so that there will not be a full 10-year look back for anyone charged before Dec. 31, 2005.

Those are the changes to drunken driving rules.

A second bill drastically increases the penalties for underage drinking.

The old law made underage drinking punishable by a fine of up to $300, but not with jail time. However, even if the offense had nothing to do with driving -- a teenager walking in the woods with a beer, for example -- police could take the offender's driver's license, which the Division of Motor Vehicles could revoke for 90 days. There was no right to a jury trial or a court-appointed lawyer. Last December, the Alaska Supreme Court found those provisions to be unconstitutional.

So, the Legislature rewrote the law, establishing three categories of underage drinkers and setting penalties well beyond the former $300 fine. The new law took effect July 1.

Now, an underage drinker with no similar offenses since the new law took effect is considered a first-time offender, subject to a fine of up to $600, of which up to $400 may be suspended, and to probation for one year or until age 21, whichever is longer. The conditions of probation must include completion of an alcohol and drug information school -- usually a 12-hour course.

First-time offenders with no prior convictions -- even for underage drinking before July 1 -- are eligible for suspended imposition of sentence and referral to youth court, which may require counseling, education, treatment, community work service and payment of fees. Landry said the youth court sentence must include completion of an alcohol and drug information school.

A repeat offender, one with a single previous minor-consuming conviction since July 1, is subject to a $1,000 fine, of which up to $500 may be suspended. A repeat offender must complete 48 hours of community work service and pay for drug and alcohol screening and any recommended education or treatment. The offender's driver's license is revoked for three months, plus six months more if treatment or work service is not completed. Probation is for one year or until age 21, whichever is longer.

A habitual offender is one with two or more prior convictions since July 1. Those under age 18 are referred to the juvenile justice system. Those 18 to 20 are subject to a fines of up to $1,000 and sentences of up to 90 days in jail -- like a Class B misdemeanor -- must perform 96 hours of community work service and must pay for drug and alcohol screening and any recommended education or treatment. The driver's license of a habitual offender of any age is revoked for six months, plus six months more if treatment or work service is not completed. Probation is for one year or until age 21, which ever is longer.

Those charged as repeat or habitual underage drinkers -- subject to license revocation -- are entitled to jury trials and court-appointed lawyers.

The possibility of jail time is one major difference from the old law. Another is the possibility of required drug and alcohol treatment, which can cost thousands of dollars, Landry said. Inpatient treatment programs suitable for minors are few, and treatment could require trips to Anchorage or the Lower 48, he said.

"If you look at the increasing penalties, you can see this is far from a minor offense," Landry said.

The new underage drinking rules could affect lots of people and put more jury trials before already busy courts. On average, Landry said, he holds six to 10 arraignments for underage drinking each week.

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