Liberty and Justice

Legislators Move Toward Rewriting DUI Law

A bill that advanced in the state Senate this week would give some DUI offenders more driving options after a conviction.

Under an amendment to SB2965 brought by sponsor Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, some first-time, non-aggravated offenders would be given a choice of whether to get a restricted license or have an interlock device installed on their vehicle in order to legally drive.

Right now, such offenders can only get a restricted license, which places geographic restrictions on a where a person can drive, like just to and from work, school, and church. But if a person convicted of a DUI offense chooses to get an interlock rather than a restricted license, the offender would no longer face such driving restrictions.

The amendment would also require that the interlock be installed on only one vehicle operated by an offender, rather than on all vehicles owned or operated by an offender, as current law stipulates.

One goal of the bill, according to proponents, is to encourage more offenders to use interlock devices. In addition to making the streets safer, they say, funds from the increased use of breath-activated ignition devices would go to offset their costs to those whom the court has deemed indigent.

Offenders with multiple DUI violations, or first-time offenders who are considered “aggravated” — which includes getting caught with a blood-alcohol content of at least .15, driving drunk with a child in the vehicle, driving drunk and being involved in an accident, or violating the implied consent law — would still be required to have an interlock device.

In 2008, there were 21,033 DUI convictions in Tennessee, according to Roger Hutto, a representative from the Department of Safety. He said 13,000 were first-time offenders, and 3,877 of those eligible for a restricted license obtained one.

Some lawmakers on the committee indicated that the low number of people getting restricted licenses shows the current law is already hard to enforce and that there may not be much of an increase in the number of interlock users.

“The cost of a DUI is very, very high,” said Sen. Doug Jackson, D-Dickson. “A lot of these people are just working people who haven’t got two nickels to rub together. The cost and consequence of a DUI are beyond their means.”

“You know what they are doing?” he continued. “They’re getting a restricted license – they’re driving anyway. People are going to do what they are going to do. Some of these people…it’s just an unfortunate circumstance they find themselves in and they’ve got kids to feed and a mortgage to pay.”

“It’s all on the honor system, anyway,” he added.

Beavers countered that people would choose to have the interlock device rather than a restricted license because of the fewer restrictions of having an interlock device under her amendment.

“I think that’s going to be an incentive for people to get the interlock, and we’re going to be safer on our streets,” she said. “The Department of Safety has told us this (legislation) will save 200-300 lives a year, and I think we have to ask ourselves, ‘What are those lives worth?’”

Beavers also downplayed the cost DUI offenders face after conviction.

“How much are these people spending on alcohol (already)?” she asked rhetorically. “What are they taking away from their families right now with the amount they have to drink every day to get up to a .15 (blood alcohol content)?”

Jackson said while that might be true for some people, “some just get caught coming home from the family reunion.”

Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis, said the fees for the devices vary greatly because of the lack of a competitive market in the state, allowing some vendors to charge “what they want to charge.”

“There isn’t competition…until there’s a market presence by more than one vendor, and we’ve not been shown any proof to that effect,” he said. “While there are people who are in the business, there are people in the business with 20 locations, and there are people in the business with just one or two locations.”

Since current law requires that vendors charge a “reasonable” fee, Kyle suggested a cap or a fee structure.

In response, the committee adopted an amendment by Sen. Doug Overbey, R-Maryville, that would limit installation fees at $70 and monthly fees at $100.

That may be revisited by the Senate Finance Committee, where the bill is headed next, after Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, suggested the Legislature give the Department of Safety the authority to set the fees so the Legislature does not need to revisit the fees every year.

Action on the companion bill in the House was deferred by a subcommittee Wednesday morning.