Citing budget constraints, a legislative commttee today rejected a measure that would have slapped a felony charge on drunken drivers for their third DUI offense–leaving Colorado among a handful of states without the stiffer penalty.
“I wish we could afford the felony,” said the House Judiciary Committee chair, Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder.
This year’s budget gap–which lawmakers are still trying to close–along with another $1.3 billion shortfall looming for next year’s budget have lawmakers skittish about approving any bill that would require additional funding. The felony conviction would have cost the state the equivalent of less than one-sixtieth of 1 percent of its operating budget, exclusive of funds set aside for education.
Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Spring, said he would like to see the state find a way to deal with drunken drivers in Colorado who are repeat offenders, and he said money shouldn’t be the final arbitrator.
“If we the state are going to get tough on DUIs, then we the state must figure out how to pay for it,” said Gardner.
Under current law, drunken driving is a misdemeanor until a driver has been convicted more than three times in a seven-year period and has been designated as a habitual traffic offender. Only then can a felony charge can kick in. The measure under consideration, House Bill 1184, sponsored by Yuma Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, would have made the third offense an automatic Class-6 felony.
“We need to get repeat drunk drivers out from behind the wheel and into jail,” said Gardner, who pointed out that Colorado is one of only four states that doesn’t have a felony charge for a third drunk driving conviction.
With a felony conviction, the offender would face at least a year and up to four years in jail. The maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is up to a year in jail–and only under certain circumstances.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving executive director Emily Tompkins testified before the House Judiciary Committee in support of Gardner’s bill. She said the only way to deter a repeat drunken driver is to strengthen the penalty.
“The possibility of a felony conviction would serve as a strong deterrent and a stronger message,” Tompkins said.
Levy, who voted against the measure, said the she would rather see a more integrated approach to drunken driving that explores less costly ways than incarceration, and she said she will soon introduce a bill of her own that addresses drunken drivers without the cost of the felony charge.
Her fellow Democrats on the committee voted with Levy on the bill citing the budget as their primary concern.
All four Republicans on the committee voted for the measure.