Members of the Rhode Island General Assembly have recently offered legislation aimed at reducing DUI in the state — and the accidents, injuries, and property damage that result.
Atty. Gen. Peter Kilmartin announced his support of the bills, which include proposals requiring ignition locks for those convicted of DUI-related offenses; closing the under-21 DUI loophole; allowing judges to review 10 years of a driver's DUI history in imposing sentences; and increasing the potential prison terms for injury and damage caused in DUI cases.
Kilmartin’s DUI package is part of a trend to strengthen drunken driving laws across the state, said local DUI Attorney Kevin Hagan.
“The penalties are getting stronger every year,” said the DUI expert. “There is a heightened awareness. Statistically we have more information on it. We understand how prevalent it is.”
Hagan said, though, that an unintended consequence from this trend is that discretion is taken away from judges.
“The judges and the prosecutors are trying to seek a just result,” said Hagan. “That has a lot more to with the individual, the legal weakness or strengths in the case.”
The House Judiciary Committee held hearings Tuesday, March 5 on the bills and recommended further study.
H5338/S0563, introduced by Rep. Raymond Gallison (D-Bristol, Portsmouth) and Sen. Susan Sosnowski (D-Block Island, South Kingstown) at the request of Kilmartin, would allow the courts to order the use of an ignition interlock system as part of a sentence for those who commit alcohol-related offenses, including refusals or DUIs.
Currently, judges can require an ignition interlock only on second and subsequent offenses of DUI.
“Allowing judges and magistrates the ability to order the installation of an interlock system as a condition of a sentence for an alcohol-related driving offense is in the best interest of public safety by ensuring offenders cannot drink and drive,” said Kilmartin.
Under-21 BAC Loophole
A loophole in Rhode Island law allows drivers under the age of 21 to have a higher alcohol content than those of legal drinking age, something legislators are working on closing.
For adults over the age of 21, the legal limit is .08, but for drivers under 21, the limit is .10 before the charge is criminal. Two legislators are sponsoring a bill (H5432/S0560) to close the gap.
The inconsistency was brought to light after Alexander Whitehouse, son of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, was arrested in Middletown on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. He registered a blood alcohol level of .091, short of the .10 limit under current law for drivers under the age of 21.
“It just makes sense that it is .08, for consistency sake, regardless of the age of the person,” said Sen. Louis DiPalma (D-Newport, Middletown, Tiverton, Little Compton) who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Donald Lally (D-Narragansett).
“Look Back” Period Extension
Introduced by Rep. Donna Walsh (D-Charlestown) and Sosnowski, the bill would increase the “look back” period on repeat alcohol-related offenses to 10 years. Currently it is only five years.
according to the Century Council’s Hardcore Drunk Driving Sourcebook, a majority of jurisdictions have a “look back” period of 10 years.
Rhode Island is the only New England state with a “look back” period of less than 10 years, according to the Century Council’s Hardcore Drunk Driving Sourcebook.
“By holding repeat offenders more accountable, we may also address the issues with alcohol abuse they may face and get them the help they need,” said Kilmartin.
Increased Penalties for Driving Injury Offenses
H5379/S0565, also introduced by Walsh and Sosnowski, would increase the imprisonment sanctions for driving to endanger resulting in death from up to 10 years to up to 20 years, and those in violation of driving as to endanger serious bodily injury from up to five years to up to 10 years.
The legislation would also increase the penalty range for DUI death resulting (up to 30 years in prison) or serious bodily injury (up to 20 years in prison), and raise the fines and length of license revocation allowed in those cases.
Under the bill, a new criminal offense of driving under the influence, injury resulting, would be created.
Current law allows for a charge of DUI with "serious injury resulting." The proposed bill would create a new felony count, punishable by up to three years in jail and up to a one-year license suspension.
“We do not tolerate those who get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle under the influence, and need strict penalties for those who flagrantly violate the law, risking every other person with whom they share the road,” said Kilmartin. "If you choose to drink and drive, and cause injury or death, you will be subject to some of the stiffest penalties in the country."
What do you think?
How effective do you think these bills will be at reducing DUI?
Do you agree that the prior 10 years of a driver's history of DUI should be considered in later court cases?
Should judges be able to require iginition locks?
And what do you think about the under-21 loophole?
Have your say in the comments below.