A loophole in Rhode Island law allows drivers under the age of 21 to have a higher alcohol content than those of legal drinking age, something legislators are working on closing.
For adults over the age of 21 the legal limit is .08, but for drivers under 21, the limit is .10 before the charge is criminal. A bill (H5432/S0560) will be discussed this week to close the gap, as part of a number of legislative initiatives aimed at strengthening the state’s DUI laws and improve highway safety, authored by Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.
“It just makes sense that it is .08, for consistency sake, regardless of the age of the person,” said Sen. Louis DiPalma (Newport, Middletown, Tiverton, Little Compton) who is sponsoring the bill with Rep. Donald Lally (D-Narragansett).
The inconsistency was brought to light after Alexander Whitehouse, son of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, was arrested in Middletown on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. He registered a blood alcohol level of .091, short of the .10 limit under current law for drivers under the age of 21.
Whitehouse was able to plea to a driving while impaired charge, which is not a criminal offense. Under that lesser charge, the minimum amount of time to lose a license is 30 days, in contrast to the 90 days minimum for driving under the influence charge.
“It treats people that are younger less severely than people who are older than 21,” said local DUI Attorney Kevin Hagan. “That doesn’t make sense to people.”
Kilmartin’s DUI package is part of a trend to strengthen drunken driving laws across the state, says Hagan.
“The penalties are getting stronger every year,” said the DUI expert. “There is a heightened awareness. Statistically we have more information on it. We understand how prevalent it is.”
Hagan said an unintended consequence from this trend is that discretion is taken away from judges.
“The judges and the prosecutors are trying to seek a just result,” said Hagan. “That has a lot more to with the individual, the legal weakness or strengths in the case.”
He said as the laws get tighter, the verdict loses the human factor.
“You could put computers on the bench,” he said. “Why do you need human beings?”
The other DUI bills that will be will be heard before House and Senate Judiciary committees this week are:
H5338/S0563, introduced by Rep. Raymond Gallison and Sen. Susan Sosnowski at the request of Kilmartin, would allow the courts to order the use of an ignition interlock system as part of a sentence for those who commit alcohol-related offenses, including refusals or DUIs. Currently, the Judiciary has the statutory authority to sentence a condition of ignition interlock only on second and subsequent offenses of DUI.
The legislation allows for enhanced penalties and duration of the ignition interlock system for subsequent offenses and penalties for those who attempt to circumvent the operation of an ignition interlock system, operating a motor vehicle not equipped with an interlock system, or soliciting another person to start a motor vehicle equipped with an ignition interlock system.
“Allowing judges and magistrates the ability to order the installation of an interlock system as a condition of a sentence for an alcohol-related driving offense is in the best interest of public safety by ensuring offenders cannot drink and drive,” said Kilmartin.
Extending the “Look Back” Period to 10 Years
Introduced by Rep. Donna Walsh and Sen. Susan Sosnowski, the bill would increase the “look back” period on repeat alcohol-related offenses to 10 years. Currently it is only five years.
According to the Century Council’s Hardcore Drunk Driving Sourcebook, a majority of jurisdictions have a “look back” period of 10 years. In fact, Rhode Island is the only New England state with a “look back” period of less than 10 years. The 10-year “look back” period is supported by the National Highway Safety Administration, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Hardcore Drunk Driver Project.
“Our current statute includes a dangerous loophole that allows habitual drunk drivers to be treated as first time offenders, threatening the lives of citizens on our roads every day. Moreover, by holding repeat offenders more accountable, we may also address the issues with alcohol abuse they may face and get them the help they need,” said Attorney General Kilmartin.
Driving Injury Offenses
H5379/S0565, introduced by Walsh and Sosnowski, would increase the imprisonment sanctions for driving to endanger resulting in death from up to 10 years to up to 20 years, and those in violation of driving as to endanger serious bodily injury from up to five years to up to 10 years.
The legislation would also increase the penalty range for DUI death resulting or serious bodily injury. A conviction under DUI, resulting in death would now be subject to imprisonment for five to 30 years, a fine of $5,000 to $20,000, and license revocation for five to 10 years. A conviction under DUI, resulting in serious bodily injury would now be subject to imprisonment for up to 20 years, a fine of $1,000 to $10,000, and license revocation for three to five years.
The legislation also creates the criminal offense of driving under the influence resulting in injury. This act would address the situation where injury results from driving under the influence, but does not meet the standard of “serious bodily injury.” Those in violation would be guilty of a felony and subject to imprisonment for not more than three years and have his or her license to operate a motor vehicle suspended for not more than one year.
“We do not tolerate those who get behind the wheel of a motor vehicle under the influence, and need strict penalties for those who flagrantly violate the law, risking every other person with whom they share the road. If you choose to drink and drive, and cause injury or death, you will be subject to some of the stiffest penalties in the country,” said Kilmartin.