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R.I. Senate bill increases penalties for drunken driving, refusing chemical test
01:00 AM EST on Wednesday, January 19, 2011
Journal Staff Writer
PROVIDENCE — Three state senators have introduced a bill to stiffen the penalties for drunken driving and refusing to submit to a chemical test in Rhode Island, one of the worst states for driving fatalities involving alcohol-impaired drivers and the state with the highest rate of refusals in New England.
The proposed amendments to current law are an attempt to deter drunken driving in the state, where lax laws have led to the federal government ordering the state to spend $22 million in the last decade to prevent drunken-driving crashes instead of general road construction. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 40 percent of 2009 driving fatalities in Rhode Island involved drivers who were alcohol-impaired, 8 percent above the national average.
The bill, S 0028, was introduced Jan. 11 by Senators John J. Tassoni Jr., D-Smithfield; Frank Lombardo III, D-Johnston; and James E. Doyle II, D-Pawtucket. It has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has not set a hearing date.
Tassoni, in an interview Tuesday, said he is trying to take up the reins from former Sen. Leonidas Raptakis who for years had submitted legislation to close loopholes in the law that make it difficult to track repeat drunken drivers and which have allowed repeat offenders to keep their licenses to drive.
“Obviously, we all have to pick our battles. I’ll pick up where he left off,” Tassoni said. “This is a very, very important issue. There have been horrific accidents, people getting killed. Every time you turn on the news, there’s another one. There are a lot of brilliant lawyers out there that get people off because of the loopholes that are there. Those loopholes need to be changed so we can save another life.”
The proposed legislation increases the penalties for failure to submit to a chemical test. It would make drunken-driving convictions count for 10 years, instead of the current 5, so that a repeat offender, if caught and convicted a second time within a decade, would face a mandatory fine of at least $400, license suspension for one to two years and a prison sentence of not less than 10 days and up to a year. Current law specifies these penalties only if there is a second offense within a five-year period.
As is the case currently, the higher the blood-alcohol level, the higher the fines and amount of prison time mandated. (The law currently requires mandatory counseling or treatment for most people convicted of drunken driving or refusing to take a chemical test, but the new bill still leaves open one loophole: It does not specifically require those with three or more repeat offenses with the worst levels of intoxication, over 0.15 percent, to get counseling or treatment.)
It also would consolidate prosecution of all drunken-driving and test-refusal cases in District Court, taking away the authority of Traffic Tribunal judges to hear test-refusal cases, which is current practice. Stephen Blackistone, the state and local liaison for the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington, D.C., has called the Rhode Island system of prosecuting test refusals and drunken-driving charges in separate courts “remarkably complicated and confusing,” with the defendant having the advantage, not the state.
Under the Tassoni bill, no person charged with drunken driving or refusing a chemical test could have the charge reduced or dismissed unless the prosecuting attorney states in open court his or her reasons for the reduction or dismissal. The proposed legislation would also make a defendant’s refusal to take a chemical test admissible as evidence in a drunken-driving trial. In the past, jurors would learn of this only if the defendant elected to testify.
The bill also says that anyone who has a suspended or revoked license for a past drunken-driving offense who is caught driving while intoxicated from alcohol or drugs, or who refuses to submit to a breath test, will be found guilty of a felony punishable by imprisonment of up to 3 years and a fine of up to $3,000.
And it would prohibit the destruction, expungement or sealing of any criminal records associated with a drunken-driving or test-refusal charge for 10 years from the date of the dismissal.
It would also:
•Impose much bigger fines on people who refuse to take chemical tests than those convicted of drunken driving. For example, a first offender convicted of drunken driving with a blood-alcohol level of .15 percent or higher would face a fine of $500 but “if the person failed to submit to a test, a fine of not less than $1,000.” Community service requirements for those who refuse to take chemical tests would also be increased significantly –– from 10 to 60 hours for those who refuse to take a test once during a 10-year period, and from 60 to 100 hours for a second violation within that time-frame.
•Set a minimum 30-day prison sentence for every person convicted of a first offense whose blood-alcohol level is 0.15 percent or more above the legal limit of .08 percent. Currently, the potential sentence is up to one year imprisonment with no mandatory minimum.
•Provide that if someone were convicted of refusing to take a breath test a second time during a 10-year period, he or she would face a mandatory six-month prison sentence, not just a sentence of up to six months as current law provides. A judge would also be allowed in this circumstance to prohibit the defendant from driving a car that is not equipped with an ignition-interlock system for two years following completion of the sentence.
Those convicted of refusing to take a chemical test three times or more within a 10-year period would be adjudged guilty of a felony instead of a misdemeanor, imprisoned for one to five years, fined $1,000 to $2,500, and face license suspension for 2 to 10 years, up from 2 to 5 years. If a judge decides to later reinstate the driver’s license, the offender’s car would have to be equipped with an ignition-interlock system for five years following reinstatement. This is a big increase from the current penalties which call for a maximum sentence of 1 year, a fine of $800 and license suspension from 2 to 5 years, with no interlock ignition device requirement.
Gabrielle M. Abbate, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Rhode Island, said Tuesday that increasing the window for considering drunken-driving convictions from 5 to 10 years “is a huge thing,” and that she is also pleased that, in most cases, the Tassoni bill mandates mandatory treatment for repeat offenders.
She said, however, that “what’s missing in here that we are promoting, even for the first offense, is a requirement that ignition-interlock devices be put in their cars.” There are some other states that mandate this after a first conviction, Abbate said.
Tassoni said that after conferring with Abbate, he plans to have his bill re-drafted to include the provision.
KEY POINTSDrunken driving bill
Failing to submit to a chemical test: The bill imposes much larger fines on people who refuse testing for drunken driving and are convicted of that offense. It also imposes mandatory prison sentences on those who are convicted of repeatedly refusing to take chemical tests, ups the amount of community service required and the amount of time a judge may suspend a license.
Changes venue for cases to be heard: The bill consolidates all drunken-driving and test-refusal cases in the District Court. Currently, refusal charges, which are motor-vehicle violations, are prosecuted at the Rhode island Traffic Tribunal, with most drunken-driving charges, which are criminal cases, prosecuted in District Court.
Extends window for convictions: Convictions would remain on a driver’s record for a judge to consider for 10 years instead of the current 5 years.
Ignition-interlock devices: Would require some offenders to have ignition-interlock devices in their cars for years after their sentences are completed.
More public records: The bill would prohibit the destruction, expungement or sealing of any criminal records associated with drunken-driving or test-refusal charges for 10 years from the date of dismissal and would require prosecutors to put on the record, in open court, their reasons for dismissing a charge.
Added penalties for intoxicated drivers with suspended or revoked licenses: Makes it a felony punishable by up to 3 years in prison and a fine of up to $3,000.