Sunday, January 23, 2000

DUI bill drawing mixed reaction

Lawmaker: Lives would be saved

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        FORT MITCHELL — A few times a year, Taylor Mill resident Debbie Augsback likes to meet friends for happy hour and have a couple of glasses of wine at Pompilio's Restaurant in Newport.

        “But I cut myself off at two glasses when I'm driving,” said Ms. Augsback, 36, a reg istered nurse and mother of two.

        If the Kentucky General Assembly changes the way a DUI charge is determined, Ms. Augsback may not be having that second glass.

        A group of state lawmakers, including House Majority Caucus Chairman Jim Callahan, D-Wilder, introduced a measure last week that would toughen the state's law governing driving under the influence.

        Among other changes, it would lower the legal standard for DUI from a .10 blood-alcohol level to .08.

        Mr. Callahan, whose daughter was critically injured in a 1995 head-on collision with a drunken driver, said there is evidence from the U.S. Department of Transportation that someone with a blood-alcohol level of .08 is impaired and shouldn't be behind the wheel.

        “This bill is going to save lives,” Mr. Callahan said.

        But the bill is getting a mixed reaction from police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the hospitality industry in Northern Kentucky.

        Kenton County Police Chief Mike Browning said that the measure won't make it easier to get a drunken driving conviction. Many motorists accused of driving drunk refuse to take a blood-alcohol test and then hire an attorney and take their chances in a jury trial.

        “With that in mind, I'm not so sure lowering the threshold to .08 will have a defining impact in Kenton County,” Chief Browning said. “We have a very difficult time already successfully prosecuting DUI arrests in Kenton County with the level at .10.”

        Campbell County Attorney Justin Verst said he thinks lowering the allowable blood-alcohol level will take more drunken drivers off the road.

        “It will help,” said Mr. Verst, whose office is charged with prosecuting DUIs, “but we really don't see many (DUIs) in that range of blood- alcohol levels.”

        Some argue that all the bill will do is target and punish “social drinkers,” or people who have just a few drinks at dinner or during a night out.

        “If this law passes, people are going to be scared to have a drink before dinner and a glass of wine during dinner,” said Jim Willman, vice president of the Drawbridge Estates in Fort Mitchell.

        “Look, we are totally against drunk driving. It's ter rible,” he said. “But the average man at 175 pounds who is eating dinner can have two glasses of wine in an hour and he won't be drunk. But he's going to be concerned about going out after having a drink with dinner with a law like they are proposing.”

        The Kentucky Restaurant Association will lobby against the bill, he said.

        Added Burr Travis, a defense attorney in Florence: “If you really want people to stay off the road after they've been drinking, you need to work on the repeat offenders and the people who won't take breathalyzer tests or (who) blow high (blood-alcohol) levels.”

        “But if you don't do that, you're just going after the social drinker.”

        The bill would toughen the punishment for repeat DUIs, said Rep. Rob Wilkey, D-Franklin, one of the bill's primary sponsors.

        . It would:

        • Prohibit open alcohol containers in vehicles. Violators could face fines of up to $100 and possible jail time.

        • Allow police to seize the licenses of people charged with DUI. First-time offenders would get temporary driving permits. They could reclaim licenses after pleading not guilty at court and showing proof of insurance.

        • Impound license plates of those convicted of DUI at least twice. Courts could grant hardship exceptions so an offender's relative could drive.

        • Make drunken driving a felony if someone is caught driving with a suspended or revoked license because of previous DUI convictions.

        Mr. Verst said the bill still needs provisions aimed at people who refuse to take the breathalyzer test, which involves the driver blowing into a device that measures blood-alcohol level.

        People refuse to take the test “and then take their chances in court with a defense attorney and a jury,” Mr. Verst said.

        Some drivers refuse to take the test because, if their blood alcohol level is 1.8 or higher they get automatic jail time under existing state law.

        But with no blood-alcohol level recorded, the suspect can try to avoid that punishment by winning in court or pleading guilty to a lesser charge, Mr. Verst said.

        Ms. Augsback agrees with the law, even though it will cut into how much she drinks.

        “I don't think it's unfair at all,” she said. “We need to do more to keep drunk drivers off the road.”

        The Associated Press contributed.



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