House panel OKs tougher DWI penalties

SANTA FE – A bill that would toughen New Mexico’s anti-DWI penalties for repeat offenders squeaked through a House committee Monday, despite criticisms that it would be punitive and overly costly for the state.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted 9-7 to approves the measure, which is backed by Gov. Susana Martinez and state law enforcement officials.

“We believe with would help keep repeat offenders off the road and discourage them from reoffending,” said Jimmy Glascock, a deputy State Police chief.

However, opponents of House Bill 175, which is sponsored by Rep. Vickie Perea, R-Belen, said the legislation would burden the state’s judicial and prison systems without providing treatments services to alcoholics.

“We are really gung-ho on locking them up, but we’re not so gung-ho on helping people,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcón, D-Milan.

Ousama Rasheed, a past president of the state’s Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, predicted it would cost the state tens of thousands of dollars more than it is currently spending to keep those convicted of multiple DWI’s incarcerated for a longer time period.

The judiciary committee’s Monday vote broke down largely along party lines, with all eight GOP committee members voting in favor of the legislation and most of the panel’s Democratic members voting in opposition.

However, Rep. Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, cast the deciding vote by breaking ranks and voting in favor of the bill.

Egolf, an attorney, said after the vote that Santa Fe has been the site of some of the state’s most horrific DWI accidents, including a 2010 case in which a man out on bond after his fifth DWI arrest killed two teenage girls in a crash. Egolf said he supports bolstering state alcohol and drug treatments programs, but thinks penalties must also be increased.

“It’s unacceptable to have people convicted of their eighth DWI and not facing a stiff penalty,” he told the Journal.

Under the terms of the bill, mandatory sentencing guidelines for convicted drunken drivers would be made stiffer starting with an individual’s fourth DWI conviction. They would increase for subsequent convictions.

Specifically, the penalty for a fourth DWI conviction would rise to 30 months in prison, up from the current guideline of 18 months. In addition, judges would only be able to suspend less than half of the sentence.

An eighth and any subsequent DWI conviction would become a second-degree felony under Perea’s legislation. Such convictions would be punishable by up to 12 years – and no less than 10 years – in prison.

The bill now advances to the House Appropriations and Finance Committee.

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