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House passes three bills increasing penalties for DWI

SANTA FE – The New Mexico House signed off Thursday on three proposals aimed at giving more teeth to the state’s DWI laws, after several recent fatalities involving drivers believed to have been impaired.

Members of the GOP-controlled chamber voted 39-26 to endorse House Bill 81, which would create a new felony offense for DWI drivers convicted while having a suspended or revoked driver’s license, though some lawmakers expressed concern that the bill might be written too broadly.

Meanwhile, a bill that would mandate longer prison terms for individuals convicted of repeat DWI offenses – those convicted of a sixth DWI could face four extra years – was also approved on a more decisive vote, as was a proposal to toughen the penalty for killing someone while driving drunk.

Although similar bills have faltered in previous years at the Roundhouse, the recent DWI-related deaths in the Albuquerque area have given the measures a higher profile in this year’s 30-day legislative session.

Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, sponsor of one of the bills, said state residents want lawmakers to enact tougher DWI penalties.

“We’re trying to send a message: New Mexicans are tired of turning on the 6 o’clock news or the 10 o’clock news … and finding out another family of four has been slaughtered in Albuquerque or somewhere else in the state,” Pacheco said.

Under New Mexico law, the first three DWI convictions are misdemeanor offenses. Fourth and subsequent convictions are felonies.

However, some lawmakers argued that the bills could have unforeseen consequences.

Specifically, several Democratic lawmakers argued that Pacheco’s proposal, HB 81, could be troublesome, since it would also penalize an individual for letting someone with a suspended or revoked driver’s license – from a DWI-related offense – use their vehicle.

“This is a piece of legislation that, if we pass, is going to clog up the judicial system,” said Rep. Eliseo Alcon, a Milan Democrat.

New Mexico’s rate of DWI fatalities has decreased in recent years. There were 118 DWI-related deaths in 2015, and five people have died in DWI-related crashes this year, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The DWI bills would also increase costs, because they would presumably lead to more and longer prison sentences.

Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said lawmakers should be prepared to support tax increases to pay for the bills, if they’re ultimately enacted.

The vote on House Bill 83, which would make killing someone while driving drunk a second-degree felony instead of the current third-degree felony, was 52-12 in favor.

Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, the bill’s sponsor, pushed back against questions on the measure, saying, “For anyone to say there is not a repeat DWI offender problem in New Mexico … they’re mistaken.”

Meanwhile, the House voted 49-16 to pass House Bill 82, the one that would make certain felony DWI convictions eligible for longer sentences under the state’s repeat offender statute. That proposal is sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque.

All three bills now advance to the Democratic-controlled Senate.