WSOC-TV recently investigated repeat drunk drivers who remain on the roads and the effectiveness of legislation passed in 2011 known as Laura’s Law. Laura’s Law was named after a 17-year-old girl from Gastonia who was killed in a car accident with a drunk driver. The drunk driver had three prior convictions for DWI. Laura’s Law created a new level of punishment called Aggravated Level One, which increased potential jail time and fines for people convicted of DWIs with three or more grossly aggravating factors.
Grossly aggravating factors include: a prior DWI conviction within seven years of the date of the current offense (and each prior conviction counts as a separate grossly aggravating factor), driving with a revoked license and the revocation was an impaired driving revocation, causing serious injury as a result of the DWI offense, and driving with a child under the age of 16 in the car at the time of the offense.
If the court finds that three of more grossly aggravating factors exist, the defendant must receive an Aggravated Level One punishment. An Aggravated Level One punishment includes a fine of up to $10,000 and a sentence of at least 12 months and not more than 36 months. The term of imprisonment may be suspended only if a special condition of probation requires the defendant to serve a term of imprisonment of at least 120 days. If the defendant is placed on probation, he must abstain from alcohol for at least 120 days and up to the length of his probation, as verified by a continuous alcohol monitoring system, and he must obtain a substance abuse assessment.
After conviction of an Aggravated Level One DWI, a person’s license is permanently revoked. A person whose license has been permanently revoked may have their license conditionally restored after three years, but one condition of the restoration is having an ignition interlock installed. This condition remains in effect for seven years.
The WSOC-TV investigation looked at how Laura’s Law impacted DWI statistics in North Carolina. Their research showed that there were 112 people who received Aggravated Level One sentences in 2012, 351 people in 2013, and 559 people in 2014. One of the state legislators who pushed to pass Laura’s Law points to these increased convictions as evidence that the law is effective. Others, however, believe that North Carolina law would be more effective in removing repeat drunk drivers from the roads by looking back more than seven years for counting prior convictions as a grossly aggravating factor.
The state legislator interviewed for the WSOC-TV article does not want to change the terms contained in Laura’s Law but is considering additional penalties. He stated that this legislative session he will consider a new bill that would provide for the confiscation and sale of the cars of repeat drunk drivers.
However, it seems that bills including harsher punishments for DWI offenses are frequently introduced and rarely passed. In the 2013-2014 session, several bills were introduced. They included:
- A bill that would require the ignition interlock condition for all restored licenses revoked for DWI and driving after drinking when under 21 (the current law requires ignition interlock only for impaired driving offenses which either (1) involve a BAC of 0.15 or higher, (2) the person has been convicted of DWI within the past seven years, or (3) the person received an Aggravated Level One punishment).
- A bill that would require that the ignition interlock restrict a driver from driving with a blood alcohol concentration of greater than 0.00 (the current statute restricts a driver subject to ignition interlock from driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04 or greater unless the person was convicted of commercial DWI, driving after drinking while under 21, or manslaughter/negligent homicide).
- A bill that would require breath testing and field sobriety tests to be video recorded at the incident site and at the testing site.
- A bill that would require special license plates that are a different color for drivers whose licenses have been restored after a DWI conviction.
- A bill that would change the habitual DWI offense from a DWI conviction after three prior DWIs within 10 years to a DWI conviction after two prior DWIs within 10 years.
- A bill that would change the habitual DWI offense to include any subsequent DWI conviction after a person has been convicted of habitual DWI.
None of these bills were passed during the 2013-2014 session. The few changes to DWI laws that were made during that session included:
- Providing that license revocation hearings can be held not only in the county in which the offense occurred but also in the county in which the person resides, unless “the evidence of the violation is an alcohol concentration report from an ignition interlock system.”
- Adding ambulances, fire vehicles and law enforcement vehicles to the statute which prohibits operating certain vehicles (such as school buses) while any alcohol remains in the driver’s system.
- Allowing a forensic analysis to testify remotely regarding blood test results.
- Allowing hospitals to perform chemical analysis of blood samples.
Although the 2015-2016 session has just begun, already there have been two bills introduced which would institute stricter DWI laws. They are a bill that would require that the ignition interlock restrict a driver from driving with a blood alcohol concentration of greater than 0.00 and a bill that would change the habitual DWI offense from a DWI conviction after three prior DWIs within 10 years to a DWI conviction after two prior DWIs within 10 years. Bills with similar language were introduced last session and not passed.
It is an extremely unpopular position to be pro-drunk driving. So where does the resistance to passing these harsher bills come from? Some feel that many impaired driving convictions stem from mistakes, often youthful ones, and worry that when someone who has made restitution by serving their punishment should not have the rest of their life impacted. Others argue that DWI is a misdemeanor and should be punished as such.
Likely, there will be more bills affecting DWIs passed this legislative session, and we will be interested to watch their progression.
If you have been charged with impaired driving, contact an attorney at Rosensteel Fleishman, PLLC (704) 714-1450, to discuss your options.