BILL INTRODUCED TO TIGHTEN DUI LAW

CATEGORY: Legislature

AUTHOR: BOBBY

BILL INTRODUCED TO TIGHTEN DUI LAW

Drinking and driving facts

– 361 people were killed in car crashes involving alcohol in 1994. This represented 45 percent of all traffic fatalities.

– 26,770 people were arrested on DUI charges in 1994, and 94 percent were found guilty and paid $7.3 million in fines.

– 2,400 teen-agers were arrested for DUI in 1994.

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Rep. Keith Montgomery is thankful he wasn’t the one of the people Stephanie Denham and Ann Lee were talking about Wednesday during a news conference on strengthening Mississippi’s Driving Under the Influence law.

Both Lee of Gulfport and Denham of Meridian gave emotional accounts of how their young daughters were killed by drunk drivers.

Montgomery of Clinton, who is beginning his second term in the state Legislature, said he could have caused an accident like the ones that claimed the lives of 4-year-old Whitney Lee last January and 9-year-old Lorien Denham in 1991.

No one was killed in the April 1995 accident in which Montgomery was arrested for driving his motorcycle under the influence of alcohol.

“I think about the accident every day,” said Montgomery as he spoke from a podium at the state Capitol surrounded by pictures of young Mississippians killed by drunk drivers. “When I go to bed, I hurt. When I wake up, I hurt.

“But when I see pictures of these kids (victims of accidents) who didn’t drink at all, I also hurt because I could have put one of them there.”

Fortunately for Montgomery, no one else was seriously hurt in his accident. Montgomery pleaded guilty to the offense, spent his time in jail after getting out of the hospital and accepted the other punishment that is included in Mississippi’s implied consent law.

A different path

But the manner in which Montgomery dealt with his case is vastly different from the way state Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae handled his DUI arrest. McRae refused a breath test when he was pulled over Feb. 23 in Flowood.

Under Mississippi law, a refusal of the test is supposed to mean automatic conviction. But McRae fought the case at every turn. When McRae eventually pleaded no contest and his license was suspended, he got a hardship ruling in a county outside the one where the offense occurred and had his license reinstated.

The bill that Montgomery introduced Thursday is designed to tighten the state’s DUI laws so that someone with McRae’s legal means, finances and influence cannot circumvent the law. Montgomery said 65 of the 122 House members already had signed the bill.

“This might be one of the most important pieces of legislation considered by the Legislature this year because I think it will save a lot of lives,” said Attorney General Mike Moore, who also was at the news conference to support the legislation.

What the bill would do

If enacted, the legislation would:

– Prevent the reduction of any DUI to a lesser offense.

– Remove all DUI cases from Youth Court.

– Provide notice to the commissioner of Public Safety 10 days before any hearing to reinstate someone’s license because of a hardship ruling.

– Define specifically what refusing the breath test means.

– Define what a hardship ruling is. “It shouldn’t be ruled a hardship when it is just an inconvenience not to have your license,” Moore said.

– Require the forfeiture of the vehicle to the county on a third DUI offense.

Moore said the bill also would result in the suspension of the driver’s license of anyone under 21 who had been drinking and driving. Under current law, someone under 21 can be arrested for DUI if their blood/alcohol content registers 0.08, while it is 0.10 for someone over age 21. Moore said the current law is ridiculous because it is illegal for someone under the age of 21 to purchase alcohol in the state. If the under-age person registers at all on the breath test, then that person should be punished, Moore said.

The proposed bill also would include many other minor changes in an attempt to close loopholes, said Rodger Moore, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

After McRae’s case, MADD, law enforcement and legislators went to work to try to tighten the DUI laws. Both Speaker of the House Tim Ford and Lt. Gov.-elect Ronnie Musgrove were at the news conference to voice support for the bill.

But the most powerful words spoken at the news conference came from the mothers of victims.

Ann Lee said a year ago she thought she was living the American dream. The Gulfport woman said she and her husband had three children, owned their home and had saved to take their family to Disney World.

“Now we are the parents of two children and an angel,” she said holding back tears. “The money we saved to go to Disney World paid for our 4-year-old daughter’s funeral after she was killed because of a drunk driver.”

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