North Carolina DWI Laws Stiffen
N.C. aims for stiffer DWI laws
'Significant step forward'
AMES ALEXANDER AND SHARIF DURHAMS
Promising they'll overhaul North Carolina's DWI laws this year, legislators have advanced a bill that would make it harder for judges to second-guess the results of alcohol breath tests.
The bill, expected to win approval from lawmakers and Gov. Mike Easley, follows recommendations from a state task force and the findings of Charlotte Observer investigations.
It also would require police to investigate the immigration status of some impaired drivers, and stiffen penalties for drunk motorists involved in deadly wrecks.
"I think it represents a significant step forward," said Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, D-Cumberland, who sponsored the bill and served on a Senate judiciary committee that approved it Thursday. "It certainly makes it abundantly clear what the law is."
N.C. law says a driver with an alcohol level of 0.08 or more commits the offense of driving while impaired.
But Observer stories published in 2004 showed that N.C. judges acquitted more than a third of DWI defendants who went to trial despite tests showing they had exceeded the alcohol limit. And a few judges -- including Mecklenburg's Jerome Leonard -- acquitted almost every driver who went to trial after testing at 0.08.
Trial conviction rates have risen steadily since the Observer's stories. N.C. judges convicted 72 percent of DWI defendants who tested over the alcohol limit and went to trial in 2005 -- compared with 65 percent the previous year, a new Observer analysis shows. Mecklenburg's trial conviction rate rose from 71 to 80 percent.
The Senate legislation would make it harder for judges to ignore the Intoxilyzer, stipulating that a reading of 0.08 is enough for a conviction.
The Senate bill could also lead to the deportation of more undocumented immigrants who drink and drive. It would require police to try to determine the legal status of impaired drivers whose citizenship appears questionable. If the drivers aren't in the U.S. legally, police would have to refer them to federal immigration officials.
A Mount Holly teacher was killed and his wife critically injured last summer when a truck driven by Ramiro Gallegos, an illegal immigrant with five previous DWI charges, plowed into their beach-bound car. A Brunswick County judge who sentenced Gallegos to 17 years in prison blamed Scott Gardner's death in part on a failed legal and immigration system.
The Senate bill also would:
• Toughen penalties for many impaired drivers found responsible for wrecks that kill or injure. Now, first-time offenders convicted of felony death by vehicle -- a charge filed in many DWI deaths -- usually get about a year in jail. Under the proposal, those convicted of that crime could be sentenced to two years or more. • Require permits in order to purchase most kegs. Anyone who buys a beer keg with eight gallons or more in North Carolina would have to obtain a permit from the local Alcoholic Beverage Control board. Those who've been convicted of alcohol sale violations in the previous three years would be disqualified. Task force members said the provision would help police determine who supplied the alcohol at parties with underage drinkers.
• Try to reduce disparities in the way N.C. courts handle youths who drink and drive. State law says those under 21 can't drive after consuming any alcohol or drugs. Mecklenburg judges frequently grant breaks to such violators. Judges in many other counties rarely do.
• Require that information about DWI dismissals be sent to law enforcement agencies, elected District Attorneys and a statewide database. The idea: Make authorities better informed about the reasons for dismissals and better equipped to prevent them.
Observer stories published in 2004 showed that N.C. prosecutors dismiss more than 10,000 DWI charges each year, mostly because the arresting police officers or the suspects themselves didn't show up in court.
The House last year approved a similar DWI bill, and key lawmakers predict the House and Senate will agree on a final version within the next few weeks. "I fully expect we'll have a bill before we adjourn," said Rep. Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat who sponsored the House bill. "...It's a pretty dramatic improvement in North Carolina law."
Defense lawyers had objected to the provision that puts more stake in the Intoxilyzer, arguing that the instrument isn't always accurate. "We're simply trying to allow for fundamental fairness, said Dick Taylor, director of the N.C. Academy of Trial Lawyers.
But some drunk driving opponents applaud the proposed changes. Cheryl Jones, who chairs the Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter that covers Mecklenburg, Union and Gaston counties, said it represents the first substantial attempt to strengthen the state's DWI laws in five years.
"There are still areas we need to work on," said Jones. "But we're very glad they're moving forward with something."
The bill would also:
• Make it easier for prosecutors to introduce at trial the results of a highly reliable sobriety test used by many police. By observing the involuntary motion of suspects' eyes, police can usually determine whether they are impaired. State law now makes it difficult for prosecutors to introduce the results of those Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus tests.
• Enhance the state courts' computer system to better track information about DWI cases. Among other things, the system would include information about the alcohol concentration of each defendant, the reasons for dismissals and the punishments imposed.
• Mandate that all state judges receive education on DWI issues every two years. Now, some new judges come to the bench without expertise in DWI law.
• Make it illegal for people under 21 to drink alcoholic beverages, except as part of a medical treatment, church sacrament or culinary class. Currently, it's only illegal for minors to possess and purchase alcohol, so it's hard to prosecute an underage drinking case unless officers saw the suspect drinking or holding a drink. Under the new provision, an alcohol test would provide enough proof, so more minors could be prosecuted.