Why the ACLU Isn't Happy a Felony DUI Bill Is Becoming Law

Last year, a bill to make driving under the influence a felony under certain conditions fell short in the Colorado general assembly — and the ACLU of Colorado, which opposed the measure, was pleased by the development.

This year, however, a tweaked version of the legislation passed, and Governor John Hickenlooper is slated to sign it into law this afternoon.

Did this variation win the ACLU's favor? Hardly. ACLU of Colorado spokesman John Krieger confirms that the organization opposed the latest bill and expresses grave doubts about whether it will decrease the number of DUI-related tragedies.

In its 2014 lobbying efforts on behalf of that year's proposal, Mothers Against Drunk Driving presented the following figures:
• Drunk driving fatalities (.08 BAC or higher): 133 in 2012, representing 28% of all total traffic deaths (Note: This total marked a 17 percent decrease from the previous year.

• DUI arrests: 25,385 in 2012

• DUI refusals (the number of people who refused to submit to a blood, breath or urine test): 7,309 in 2012 

• Taxpayer subsidy of drunk driving fatalities: $704 million in 2012

• Alcohol use in past month among persons aged 12 to 20: 32.80% in 2011

• Alcohol use in past month among persons aged 12 to 20: 188,000 in 2011

• Binge alcohol use in past month among persons aged 12 to 20: 21.40% in 2011

• Binge alcohol use in past month among persons aged 12 to 20: 123,000 in 2011
Nonetheless, the ACLU of Colorado came out against the legislation, with Denise Maes, the ACLU's public-policy director, arguing that the cost of switching from misdemeanors to felonies in some cases wasn't justified. "If it's not money well-spent — if it's not effective in solving the problem — we're better off diverting those resources into areas that are more effective," she told us in May 2014.

Maes added that "there's a lot more the state can do to curtail drunk driving as opposed to criminalizing the issue." She cited as examples increased emphasis on treatment, more checkpoints intended to identify drunk drivers before they can harm anyone and targeted investigations aimed at bars with a record of allowing customers to drink excessively and then climb behind the wheel.

After the 2014 bill failed, Representative Lori Saine, a sponsor of the 2014 measure, and a number of supportive colleagues altered some aspects of the legislation in the hope that the changes would help it garner additional support. Here's the relatively concise summary from the 2014 bill:
Under current law, a DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI is a misdemeanor offense. The bill makes such an offense a class 4 felony if:

• The violation occurred not more than 7 years after the firstof 2 prior convictions for DWAI, DUI, or DUI per se;vehicular homicide; or vehicular assault; or

• The violation occurred after 3 prior convictions for DWAI,DUI, or DUI per se; vehicular homicide; or vehicular assault.

The bill repeals provisions relating to the crime of aggravated driving with a revoked license when the offender also commits DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI as part of the same criminal episode.
And here's the 2015 summary, featuring several more specifics, clarifications and caveats:
Under current law, a DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI is a misdemeanor offense. The bill makes such an offense a class 4 felony if the violation occurred:

(1) After 3 or more prior convictions for DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI; vehicular homicide; vehicular assault; or any combination thereof; or

(2) not more than 7 years after the first of 2 prior convictions for DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI; vehicular homicide; vehicular assault; or any combination thereof, if the violation included at least one of the following circumstances:

• One or more persons less than 18 years of age were present in the person's vehicle at the time of the violation;

• In committing the violation, the person caused damage or injury to any property or persons;

• After committing the violation, the person fled the scene; or

• At the time of the violation, or within 2 hours after the violation, the person's BAC was 0.15 or higher.

Under current law, aggravated driving with a revoked license is a class 6 felony. The bill changes the penalty to a class 1 misdemeanor but requires a sentencing court to ensure that an offender spends a minimum of 60 days in the custody of a county jail.

Under current law, a person whose privilege to drive was revoked for multiple convictions for any combination of a DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI must hold an interlock-restricted license for at least one year following reinstatement prior to being eligible to obtain any other driver's license. The bill expands this period to a minimum of 2 years and a maximum of 5 years.

The bill repeals provisions relating to the crime of aggravated driving with a revoked license when the offender also commits DUI, DUI per se, or DWAI as part of the same criminal episode.

This time around, the measure, formally known as House Bill 15-1043, passed both houses of the Colorado legislature, and Governor Hickenlooper is scheduled to appear alongside Saine and other lawmakers at a bill-signing ceremony scheduled to take place at 2:30 p.m. today at  Lifeloc Technologies, 12441 W. 49th Avenue, Suite 4, in Wheat Ridge.

Suffice it to say the ACLU won't be celebrating.

"While we agree that driving under the influence is a serious matter, several other states have passed new felony DUI bills over the past few years without any resulting decrease in alcohol-related deaths or accidents," notes spokesman Krieger via e-mail.

"Incarceration does nothing to cure the disease of alcoholism," he continues. "Only treatment can do that. And Colorado jails are not equipped to become de facto substance abuse treatment facilities. We want safer roads and communities. But clear evidence tells us that putting more DUI offenders behind bars for longer amounts of time isn’t the answer.

"Treatment is a proven, more effective path to solving the problem, and that is where our legislature should be focusing tax dollars."

Look below to see a Fox31 report about the bill, followed by the document itself.

House Bill 15-1043

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
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