SANTA FE, N.M. — Stiffer penalties for people convicted of drunken driving and making it easier for police to testify at DWI hearings are among a package of proposals Gov. Susana Martinez unveiled to combat New Mexico’s longstanding drunken driving problem.
“We’ve got to make sure there is some significant punishment,” Martinez said at a news conference Tuesday. “DWI is a problem and New Mexico has weak laws.”
Martinez has repeatedly called for stricter punishments for drunken drivers in New Mexico, which has a significantly higher rate of drunken-driving deaths per capita than the nation as a whole.
The state also sees many DWI cases dropped at the court level due to various reasons, including police officers having to appear in person at the hearings. In Albuquerque in 2014 for example, 1,920 of 3,853 DWI cases, or about 50 percent, were dismissed, according to an annual DWI report.
One of the changes would allow police officers to attend DWI court hearings by video conference.
“I think we can prevent a lot of DWIs from actually being dismissed. … There are a lot of cases that are being dismissed because they don’t get through the system in a timely manner,” Martinez said. “You have multiple hearings that require the appearance of one officer in multiple hearings on the same day.”
Martinez announced the proposed changes to state DWI laws at the Office of the Medical Investigator, which investigates sudden and unexpected deaths, including fatal car wrecks.
“After enforcement and legislation, we have the Office of the Medical Examiner. And unfortunately that’s where a lot of people are ending up,” said Tom Church, Cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Transportation.
Republican Reps. Tim Lewis of Rio Rancho and Sarah Maestas Barnes of Albuquerque are backing the legislation and appeared at the news conference in support of the proposed legislation.
Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto, an Albuquerque Democrat, said that while he hasn’t seen any of the legislation the governor is proposing, tough-on-crime bills and a bill to allow officers to appear in court electronically were killed in prior sessions.
He said it’s crucial that the credibility of all witnesses can be evaluated by judges and juries.
“You just can’t do it when it’s by video,” he said.
The legislation Martinez is calling for would increase the jail or prison sentences for certain repeat DWI offenders.
She proposed that a person convicted of their fourth DWI, which is a felony, would be sentenced to 18 to 30 months in prison. The current penalty is six to 18 months of incarceration.
A fifth would call for two to three years in prison and a sixth would mean a 30-month to 42-month sentence, also lengthening current sentences.
Martinez is also in favor of increasing the fines and community service for first, second and third drunken driving convictions.
She also said felony DWI convictions should be used to enhance the prison sentences of people found to be habitual offenders, the state should crack down on people who lend their vehicles to people with revoked licenses because of a DWI conviction and it should allow officers to obtain search warrants to test the blood of people suspected of being impaired with drugs.
Ivey-Soto and Matthew Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, said they favored other ways of trying to address crime instead of just increasing the punishments.
“Increasing prison sentences has shown to be a costly and ineffective way of tackling crime,” Coyte said.
“I just think we need a more comprehensive approach,” Ivey-Soto said.
Lewis said all the legislation will include some sort of treatment plan for alcohol and drug addicts, but did not go into specifics.
“Treatment and prevention are always in these packages,” Lewis said. “We make sure we include that.”