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Wheels of misfortune

Getting a first-time DWI offender into treatment might preclude a second or third offense

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It's been a busy week for proposed alcohol legislation. City Council President Jackie Clarkson sparked a lot of discussion when she introduced a pair of proposals to make bars and liquor stores open only to persons at least 21 years old. Currently persons 18 and older can enter bars and liquor stores in Louisiana, but no one under 21 may consume alcohol. After pushback from several groups, including business owners and musicians, Clarkson tabled her plans to consider both proposals last week and instead referred them to the council's criminal justice committee. A vote is now set for March 15.

  Meanwhile, state Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, plans to introduce legislation that would prohibit drive-through daiquiri shops from using pre-perforated tops on their drinks — a straw inserted in a daiquiri cup lid violates the state's open container law. That would seem a no-brainer, but the last time Claitor introduced a similar bill, it languished in the Senate Transportation Committee.

  Less discussed in recent days — but far more substantive and overarching — is a set of seven legislative proposals that would strengthen DWI laws in Louisiana. Gov. Bobby Jindal supports all seven measures. Here's what those bills would do:

  • Allow officers to administer multiple tests to drivers to assess impairment. Under the Implied Consent Law, anyone using a driver's license is tacitly agreeing to a Breathalyzer or similar test if a law enforcement official suspects they are impaired. Current state law isn't clear as to whether secondary blood or urine tests can be administered. Breath tests can't detect narcotics, so this proposal would give officers another tool in their arsenal — or be an invasion of privacy, depending on how you see it and how the bill's language is crafted.

  • Close a loophole in the Implied Consent Law. Any driver who refuses a sobriety test would have his or her license automatically suspended.

  • Require substance abuse disorder assessment from the first DWI conviction. Right now, mandatory alcohol or substance abuse assessment is required only after a driver's third DWI conviction. That is ridiculous. We support this legislation. Getting a first-time DWI offender into treatment might preclude a second or third offense.

  • Make it illegal for motorists to drive with "any detectable amount of any controlled dangerous substance in their system which has not been medically prescribed."

  • Expand the 10-year window for enhanced penalties upon a second DWI conviction. Currently drivers can receive harsher penalties if they have a second DWI conviction within 10 years of the first one. That 10-year window now includes time on parole; the proposed change would exclude parole time.

  • The last two proposals would address second- and third-time offenders, setting stricter regulations for "ignition-interlocking devices" (think steering wheel Breathalyzers) and restricted "hardship licenses," which allow people convicted of a DWI to drive to work, substance-abuse meetings and medical appointments.

  The last of these proposed laws may have the most impact in the long run. According to statistics provided by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Louisiana passed its first ignition interlock law in 2007. Louisiana is one of only 14 states that require mandatory ignition interlock devices for convicted first-time offenders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Since 2007, MADD says, Louisiana deaths due to drunk driving have declined by 40 percent.

  Indeed, our state is doing better than its neighbors when it comes to reducing alcohol-related vehicular deaths. A 2010 study by the federal government, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), found Louisiana ranked 30th in the nation for DUI-related traffic deaths per capita. By comparison, Mississippi ranked 43rd, while Texas came in at 49th.

  State Sen. Jonathan Perry, R-Kaplan, who is presenting four of these bills, wants to tweak the state's DWI laws in other ways as well. Right now a first DWI conviction in Louisiana draws a fine of $1,000 or less and a jail term of 10 days to six months — but a judge can suspend any or all of that sentence, or order home confinement instead. Perry wants to strip judges of that discretion, forcing all persons convicted of DWI to spend at least some time behind bars.

  We support tougher DWI laws because they have proved effective. However, we do not support stripping judges of their lawful discretion, particularly for first-time offenders. Repeat offenders, or even first-timers who cause serious injury to others, are better targets for mandatory jail time. Overall, the message in all these proposals is clear: Louisiana is getting tougher on DWI offenders, and that is a very good thing.

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