Gov. Hickenlooper signs bill making fourth DUI offense a felony
Four strikes and you’re out, according to a bill signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday. The new law would make a fourth DUI conviction in a lifetime a class four felony instead of a misdemeanor.
“It’s about time,” said Frisco Police Chief Tom Wickman. “I’ve seen so many families lose a loved one to a drunk driver, it’s just heartbreaking.”
In Colorado, for a first-time DUI conviction, an offender can be sentenced to up to one year of jail time, a fine of up to $1,000 and a 9-month license suspension. With each successive DUI, the maximum punishment increases.
While Sheriff John Minor reports that some first-time DUIs don’t result in jail time if the offender bonds out, the cost of a conviction is still costly.
“You lose your license, your insurance rates triple and the cost of attorney is 10, 15 thousand dollars,” Minor said.
Before, a person convicted of three or more DUIs would be fined $600 to $1500. Now, the fine for the fourth offense—a class four felony—ranges from $2,000 to $500,000, with up to six years in prison.
A much more stringent version of the bill was proposed last year, making a third consecutive DUI a felony. But the bill was shot down, due to the price tag. This year, a slightly softer version was proposed by Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, with an estimated cost of $1,472,860 for the next fiscal year. That cost jumps to just over $4 million for FY 16-17 and nearly $8 million for FY 17-18 for increased costs in the court and prison systems, but most critics argue that the bill isn’t strong enough.
“At least, it’s better than nothing. It’s headed in the correct direction,” said Silverthorne Police Detective Theresa Barger. She reported that Silverthorne has seen nine DUI convictions so far this year; the county has seen just less than 150.
“There’s a couple (of DUIs) that are definitely repeats. When I first was an officer up here, 14 years ago, there was an older lady in her late 60s, early 70s. She had already had six DUIS,” Barger said. “Then there are people who never have a DUI and mess up once, and never do it again.”
A 2010 report by the Colorado Department of Human Services shows that first time offenders who are caught with a blood alcohol content (BAC) above .15 are significantly more likely to reoffend than those with a BAC below that level.
The average BAC for a DUI in Colorado is .165, more than twice the legal limit, according to CDOT Manager of Impaired Driving Programs Glenn Davis. He added that the average DUI costs the offender $10,270.
“Those people are the lucky ones who didn’t hurt others and didn’t hurt themselves,” Davis said.
While Summit County’s smaller population lends itself to fewer DUI fatalities, the rate per every 100,000 people was slightly higher than the Colorado average. A Colorado Department of Transportation Report covering five years, from 2009 to 2013, showed that Summit County had 3.6 fatalities per 100,000, compared with a statewide average of 2.8 per 100,000.
The same report noted that in 2013, there were 14 fatalities in Colorado’s Central Mountain area, consisting of Summit, Eagle, Lake, Park, Pitkin and Chaffee counties. Three of those fatalities involved a driver with a BAC over .08.
Davis said that most DUI-related fatalities take place over the summer, when more people are travelling or vacationing and with several large holidays during the warmer months. He said that CDOT will hold their Checkpoint Colorado program, where they set up checkpoints along common sites for alcohol-related crashes, from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
“I have a file sitting on my desk, that sits here year round, for a young lady that was killed on Aug. 5, 2006 by a drunk driver,” said Silverthorne Police Chief Mark Hanschmidt. “On that day, I assign one of my officers to do an extra DUI shift in her honor.
“Unfortunately, alcoholism is a disease. Someone who continually drinks and drives is gonna do that. That’s where we come in with classes and training.”
Detective Barger offers classes to help train officers to recognize and handle DUI offenses. She said officers take a daylong training to identify signs of alcohol abuse. Barger said during a traffic stop, sometimes officers will look for the smell of alcohol or weed, along with any obvious paraphernalia, such as open bottles. But, as with any traffic stop, the drivers are not always cooperative.
“A lot of times, people who are drunk won’t roll down their windows all the way or will put something in their mouth, so the smell isn’t coming out of the window as easily,” Barger said. “One person tried to drive away, but I had already told them to turn off their vehicle. They tried to shift into drive and push on the gas while the engine was off.”
Different drugs, same sentence
With most DUIs, officers will look for signs of alcohol consumption, as it is the most common offense and the easiest substance to test. But, when the driver has consumed narcotics, such as prescription drugs or marijuana, a blood test is required to confirm the suspected DUI.
“A lot of people are driving, and don’t realize that (THC) stays in your system for approximately four hours,” Barger said. “We have a lot of that, too, with prescribed drugs, especially in the older community.”
For marijuana, the legal THC limit for a DUI is 5 nanograms. But, no matter the substance, the sentence is still the same.
Even in some cases, where a driver tests under the legal limit (.08 BAC or 5 nanograms THC), they can still receive a DWAI, or “driving while ability impaired.” If an officer sees signs of erratic driving, involuntary eye movement or other signs of impairment, they are able to charge the driver for the slightly lesser offense.
“I think you see a little more of the DWAIs because people get up here with the elevation and don’t realize that just drinking one can cause more problems with how their body reacts to the alcohol,” Barger said.
The new felony DUI law will go into effect on Aug. 5, just in time for the end of the summer season.
“We get a lot of higher-level DUIs up here. People just drink to excess and, unfortunately, get behind the wheel and get caught,” Dillon Police Chief Mark Heminghous said. “It’s time that we had something like that that has a little bigger bite on people that makes it a lot more serious than just another DUI.”
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