State Politics

New program could erase 1st-time DUI charges, if lawmakers approve it

New drunken-driving legislation got a mixed reception Tuesday, with a House committee advancing one bill and delaying a vote on the other.

More people convicted of drunken driving would have devices installed in their cars to monitor their sobriety under the proposals. But first-time drunken drivers would also have a chance at a new Idaho program that could eventually erase a DUI charge.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA both support the legislation package, brought by a Boise Democrat, Sen. Grant Burgoyne, and a New Plymouth Republican, Rep. Ryan Kerby.

Burgoyne’s bill would mandate that first-time, convicted drunken drivers use a ignition interlock device for one year, unless a judge finds reason not to order the device.

An ignition interlock device requires a driver to blow into a breathalyzer and prove they are sober before their vehicle will start. Current Idaho law largely calls for an interlock device for someone’s second offense or above, depending on a judge’s discretion. The state would use interlock devices with cameras to prevent drivers from just having another person blow into the breathalyzer, Kerby said.

Burgoyne called drunken driving “a preventable syndrome” that should be taken seriously at every level.

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise.

“Even on a first offense, people are going to have a wake-up call with an ignition interlock device,” Burgoyne said at a press conference earlier Tuesday. “(They’ll be) put into a program that’s going to help them not do this again.”

The cost of the devices vary. According to the Idaho Transportation Department, installing an interlock device can range from $50 to $150, and their use costs between $50 and $175 a month. That means a first-time DUI offender could be required to pay as much as $2,250 a year for their interlock device. The price varies based upon the company providing the device, some could be closer to $1,000 a year.

Burgoyne’s bill would not allow “financial hardship” alone as a mitigating circumstance exempting someone from the interlock device. County programs already exist to aid people who need help paying for their interlocks, Kerby said; those would also be available for first-time offenders.

“The reason people receive a conditional license back (after a conviction) is so that they can work,” Burgoyne said. “And if they can work, isn’t it reasonable that they pay a reasonable cost for protecting the public from their driving, given that they are an offender?”

The Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee unanimously forwarded Burgoyne’s bill to the full House, with a recommendation that it pass there.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth.

But the committee postponed a vote on the second part of the package until Thursday. That bill, from Kerby, would create a diversion program for first-time drunken drivers. Rather than going through a traditional court process, each participant would use the interlock device for six months to a year and participate in other programs, such as an inmate labor detail or alcohol abuse education. If the participant successfully completed the program, the charge would be dismissed.

Drunken drivers would not be eligible for the program if they had killed or injured someone while under the influence. The bill would also give prosecutors the ability to block someone from being considered for the program.

The idea proved controversial. Idaho law currently charges a person with a felony upon their third DUI arrest. Because it wouldn’t produce a conviction, the diversion program would essentially delay that felony charge until the fourth incident, Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs told lawmakers. He said the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association all oppose Kerby’s bill for that reason.

Boise County Prosecutor Dan Blocksom is the only prosecutor in the state who supports the bill. He told the committee that he saw it as an incentive to prevent people from committing future DUIs, much like plea agreements.

“We want to incentivize people to want to do this,” Blocksom said.

Kerby said he saw the legislation as both a way to reduce crashes and a way to save taxpayer dollars. His example of the latter: Sending someone through the diversion process for a misdemeanor, he said, may head off a later felony DUI that would require prison time and costs to the state.

“If a person is going to drink under the influence, they should be responsible for changing their own behavior,” Kerby said at the press conference. “The way it is now, it looks to me like we’re not doing a whole lot (of rehab) until you get to a felony.”