Bill would lessen DUI penalties, cut trialsKellie Mejdrich For The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star | Posted: Saturday, April 23, 2011
- State legislators want to ease penalties for some convicted DUI offenders, cutting the time they must use an ignition-interlock system in half and scaling back mandatory jail time.
Sen. Steve Pierce R-Prescott, says it’s an effort to “help keep people on the road.” Fellow sponsor Sen. Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, said cutting court cost was also behind SB 1200, sent to the governor for her signature on Wednesday. The interlock time reduction, reduced sentences and elimination of jury trials for first-time DUIs shifts some expenses away from the taxpayer and to the offender. The changes were needed, Pierce said, to soften harsh policies that were “damaging families, damaging people’s lives,” while encouraging offenders to change their behavior. To qualify for reduced interlock time, first-time offenders must complete a 16-hour education program, calibrate the device monthly at the Motor Vehicle Division, not be involved in an accident at the time of the offense, and not attempt to drive when they’re over the DUI limit during the six-month period. Mothers Against Drunk Driving supported the bill if the ignition-interlock period remained at 12 months. “We are behind the bill as long as 12 months is included,” said Beverly Mason Biggers, program specialist for the MADD Southern Arizona office. “Research has shown that it takes 12 full months to learn new habits.” She wouldn’t say where the organization stands now that the interlock time has been cut. Legislators say the switch to six months is intended as an incentive for convicted drivers, who often don’t comply under the current requirement. Gray said only 30 percent of those required to have an ignition interlock actually get it installed and comply with the device. This bill is seeking to change that, she said. “It’s a little bit of a carrot out there for good behavior. Some people will realize they’ve made a horrible choice,” Gray said. Supporters of the bill say the interlock and other pro- visions don’t just give criminals a second chance, they shift much of the expense to the individual instead of the government. “It’ll save the taxpayers,” Gray said, about not requiring a jury trial. “Why go through all that expense for a jury trial for one day (in jail)?” The bill puts the now-mandatory 24 hours in jail for first offenders to the “discretion of the presiding judge.” It allows judges to cut 30 days to nine for extreme DUI cases. For super-extreme DUI, the 45-day minimum sentence could be reduced to 14 days. All the reductions are contingent on having the interlock installed. Defense lawyers are lambasting the bill for revoking a person’s constitutional right to a speedy and public trial by a jury of peers. “We’ll challenge it on constitutional grounds,” James Nesci, a Tucson defense lawyer, said. “You can’t legislate away constitutional rights.” But a 2005 Arizona Supreme Court decision said offenses requiring less than six months of jail time don’t demand a jury trial, which would cover the typical non-extreme DUI case. Still, defense lawyers say they’ll challenge it. “Certainly the county saves money by not having people in jail, and the cost of the interlock device is paid by the offender,” said Kathleen Mayer, legislative liaison for the Pima County Attorney’s Office. But the office isn’t driven by monetary savings, she said. “If it turns out the interlock device saves more lives, then that’s a good thing,” Mayer said. “Penalties for DUI have been steadily increasing in the last decade and the amount of fatalities have steadily decreased. More jail time has worked in the past.” Nesci argues that “signing this bill will be taking the right to a jury trial out of the hands of the people and into the hands of activist judges who like to legislate from the bench.” “This should be something that really concerns the people of Arizona,” he said. Pierce counters this bill gives some leeway back to judges. “We think we’re doing the right thing giving judges a little more discretion,” Pierce said. But Michael Bloom, a Tucson defense attorney who handles DUI cases, said discretion should remain in the hands of the people. “Now we’re going to turn over the resolution of criminal charges that can affect people’s lives to political appointees?” Bloom said. “Arizona has a long history of placing the right to a jury trial on a pedestal and recognizing that it is a critical part of our justice system.” But a jury trial is costly, especially when a court-appointed attorney defends the case, Gray said. “The public defender is there interviewing each one of the jurors. Sometimes that takes all day,” Gray said. In the case of public defenders, “the taxpayers have to pay for that.” “It’s shocking they would attempt to save money by crippling our legal system,” Bloom said. “Proponents of the bill think that less jail time will encourage people to do the interlock rather than go to jail,” Mayer said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”