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Editorial: Latest multifatality shows laws on DWI still needed

It was a grotesquely simple explanation for the horrific crash near Moriarty on Saturday that claimed the lives three family members and injured four others.

“I was drunk,” Caesar Chavez, 50, of Moriarty, told a judge Monday during his initial court appearance.

Investigators say Chavez, who has at least two prior DWI convictions, was driving south in the northbound lane of Lexco Road when his Toyota collided head-on with Pablo Caldera-Quezada’s Chevrolet SUV. Chavez is facing three counts of vehicular homicide and other charges, and was booked into the Torrance County jail.

A month to the day earlier, Gov. Susana Martinez held a news conference to announce that progress is being made in New Mexico’s fight against DWI, and that 2015 had the fewest number of alcohol-related fatalities in the past 36 years – 122. Despite noting that 2015’s DWI fatality rate was 28 percent lower than the previous year’s, she said, “We still have a lot of work to do.”

Unfortunately, we – or more specifically, the people we elected to the Democrat-controlled New Mexico Senate – passed up multiple opportunities to do that work in the most recent legislative session.

House Bill 81, introduced by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, would have created a new felony offense for DWI drivers convicted while having a suspended or revoked driver’s license. It passed the Republican-controlled House on a 39-26 vote.

HB 82, introduced by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, would have made certain felony DWI convictions eligible for longer sentences under the state’s repeat offender statute. It passed the House 49-16.

But both bills died in Senate committees.

HB 83, introduced by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, would have made killing someone while driving drunk a second-degree felony instead of the current third-degree felony and increased the penalties and mandatory periods of incarceration for fourth and subsequent offenses. It passed the House 52-12.

The Senate did pass its own version, Senate Bill 118, which also reclassified vehicular homicide while under the influence of alcohol or drugs from a third-degree felony to a second-degree felony and increased some penalties. But it left mandatory sentencing at the eighth and subsequent convictions. That bill was introduced by Sen. George Muñoz, a Democrat from Gallup.

It remains to be seen what impact SB 118 will ultimately have on repeat offenders as it does not go into effect until July 1.

But the evidence is overwhelming that, while many legislators promise to get tough on DWI offenders – especially repeat offenders like Chavez – they’re too willing to pull the punch. And it’s families like the Caldera-Quezadases that pay the price.

Remember that next time you vote.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.