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Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Legislature Takes Aim at DWI

By Kate Nash
Journal Capitol Bureau
    SANTA FE The harm caused by alcohol abuse is so great in New Mexico, a Republican state senator is proposing something he normally would vote against: a tax increase.
    Sen. Allen Hurt, a physician from Waterflow, said the state needs to address the "mess left behind by alcohol's damage on lives, families, businesses and property."
    "We've got (drunken-driving) prevention programs. We've got treatment. But what about injuries?" he said. "We haven't done anything about the person who is struck by the drunk driver."
    The proposal is one of many in the current session of the state Legislature aimed at preventing, punishing and cleaning up after DWI.
    Linda Atkinson, executive director of the DWI Resource Center in Albuquerque, said she's seen as few as three DWI-related bills in past legislative years. About 40 bills are making their way through the process this year.
    "Just to see the volume, it tells me that people out there want to fix this," she said.
From all sides
    The effort is broad: Democrat representatives, Republican senators, rural freshmen and longtime urban lawmakers are involved, and Gov. Bill Richardson has pledged to crack down on the DWI problem.
    Hurt's proposal would add five cents to the state's alcohol excise tax, partly to put more money into helping trauma victims. Roughly half of all trauma victims in the state suffer brain and other injuries at the hands of drunken drivers, he said.
    "I'm not wild about taxes, but I see this as a long overdue way to get back some of the social costs from alcohol," Hurt said.
    Hurt's measure (SB 155) would roughly double the $38 million the state gets from the existing excise tax; in addition to trauma care, it would earmark money for physicians' assistants and alcohol abuse prevention programs.
    While New Mexico legislators for years have tried to combat drunken driving with stiffer penalties, proposals this year also include bills to impound drunken drivers' cars and to better share information about offenders.
    Sen. Kent Cravens, R-Albuquerque, whose own family suffered because of a high-profile DWI incident, said the Legislature must take steps to heal one of the state's biggest problems.
    "It suffices to say the trend is going in the wrong direction," Cravens said. Between 2001 and 2002, DWI-related deaths rose more than five percent, according to state figures.
    One of this year's bills (SB 501), sponsored by Sen. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, would create a new license for people who have revoked licenses because of DWI convictions. The new license would allow people to only drive cars equipped with ignition interlocks.
    "It promotes exactly the kind of behavior we want and that is driving sober," Cravens said. "Eighty to 85 percent are driving without a license anyway. If they can get this, it allows them to go to work, to drive sober, to drive their kids to the doctor, so that their family doesn't become a burden."
    Another measure (HB 117 committee substitute), sponsored by Rep. Thomas Swisstack, D-Rio Rancho, would require alcohol treatment for offenders convicted of DWI two or more times. Drunken drivers would either spend 30 days in an inpatient treatment center or 90 days in an outpatient program.
    The bill would add 30 days to any sentence for someone convicted of a subsequent DWI offense within three years of a previous offense.
Several ideas
    Other measures take different approaches:
  • Rep. Don Tripp, R-Socorro, is sponsoring a bill (HB 327) that would require a convicted second-time offender to spend at least 14 days behind bars instead of 72 hours. An aggravated second DWI offense would land a person in jail for a month instead of 96 hours;
  • A bill (HB 139) by Rep. Max Coll, D-Santa Fe, would allow law enforcement officials to seize the cars of repeat offenders and those who drive on revoked licenses;
  • Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-San Juan Pueblo, is sponsoring HB 278, which would allow agreements between tribal and other governments to share information about convicted DWI offenders;
  • SB 170, sponsored by Hurt, would make sure the Motor Vehicle Division knows about a person's conviction by placing the burden on convicts.
        The measure would require drivers to report a DWI conviction to the division within two weeks. The bill would fine those who don't do so up to $1,000 or sentence them to up to 364 days in jail. Those who break the proposed law also would have their license revoked for a year.
        "A lot of times the perpetrators of these hideous accidents have a long record of drunk driving," Hurt said. But offenses from various jurisdictions aren't always in one database, he said.
        Atkinson said she's glad to see so many initiatives before lawmakers. She said other approaches should be included, such as more funding for the enforcement of current laws, including checkpoints and a measure to make DWI sentencing more consistent.
        "Of course, I still don't see something that makes judges tougher," she said.