Bill would allow driver's licenses of 3-time DUI offenders to be permanently revoked
San Mateo County Times
Posted: 12/29/2009 04:34:15 PM PST
Updated: 12/29/2009 04:34:15 PM PST
Condemning a legal system that allowed two Peninsula residents to rack up nine DUIs each, a Bay Area legislator today will announce a bill that would give California judges the power to permanently revoke licenses of drunken drivers after three convictions.
The bill, to be unveiled at a news conference in South San Francisco and introduced Monday by Assemblyman Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, is designed to make it harder for repeat drunken drivers to get back behind the wheel legally. Critics of the bill say it will lead to more unlicensed accidents.
The legislation would set two new standards: a three-strikes rule that judges could use to take drunken drivers off the road forever, and DMV authority to take into consideration a defendant's entire history of drunken driving when deciding to suspend or revoke a license.
Currently, the DMV can only take into account DUI convictions from the past 10 years and can only revoke a driver's license if the motorist injures or kills someone while intoxicated.
"Why should we wait for an accident to happen?" Hill asked. "I don't want to see a loved one of mine — or anyone else, for that matter — harmed or injured by a drunken driver."
Hill said he was compelled to introduce the legislation after reading a series of Bay Area News Group stories. The stories highlighted how a Belmont man who was able to get his license back after his eighth DUI conviction, only to pick up his ninth, was far from alone in getting back behind the wheel after multiple drunken-driving arrests.
The articles, which ran October through December, included comments from local prosecutors and legislators who argued that the current California DUI law makes it too easy for repeat offenders to get back behind the wheel.
The stories included DMV statistics showing that a whopping 34,145 California drivers had managed to chalk up three or more DUI convictions as of 2006, the most recent data available, while another 6,504 motorists had four or more convictions. A staggering 154,337 additional drivers had two DUIs. DMV records also show the more DUIs a person has, the more likely they are to be arrested again.
The reports were written after William Simon, 42, was sentenced by a San Mateo County court in October for his ninth DUI, apparently the most in California. In his ninth offense, his blood alcohol content was 0.22 — nearly triple the legal limit of 0.08. He was able to get his license back continually because he never injured anyone and his arrests occurred over a 24-year period.
"It's outrageous to think that someone with eight DUIs is still driving," said Hill, who called the county the "poster child" for the DUI issue in California. "The person certainly needs help and has a problem and the solution to the problem isn't a driver's license."
Yet the case of 46-year-old Redwood City resident Juan Rueda, who was arrested for DUI in August while his driving privileges were suspended, illustrates that some chronic offenders cannot be stopped simply be shredding their licenses. He will stand trial on felony charges in San Mateo County next month for what would be his ninth DUI conviction.
"(The bill) is a waste of effort," said Joshua Dale, executive director of the California DUI Lawyers Association. "All it is going to do is increase the amount of unlicensed, uninsured accidents. It's not logical, it's not scientific — it's just reaction."
Still, there is no denying the dangers intoxicated motorists pose to themselves and others and the fact that many do not learn their lesson after the first time.
About 2,500 people were killed by drunken drivers while roughly 59,000 more were injured in California from 2007 to 2008, state figures show. Federal highway officials say one-third of the nation's 1.5 million annual DUI arrests are repeat offenders.
The San Mateo County District Attorney's Office supports the bill, arguing that it would not lead to jail overcrowding but would protect motorists.
"The people who benefit — the public, you and me as we're riding on our streets — deserve that protection," chief deputy district attorney Steve Wagstaffe said.
DMV officials say it is not easy to get a license back after multiple arrests. The cost of hiring special insurance required for those convicted of DUIs and court-ordered classes on the dangers of drunken driving serve as a deterrent for repeat offenders, many of whom never get their licenses back.
Not so for motorists with one to three drunken driving charges. They must pay a fine of as much as $1,000, take a class on the dangers of driving under the influence and possibly serve jail time. First-time offenders lose their licenses for four months, and a third-time offender cannot drive for three years.
The state does have a history of stiffening its DUI laws with time. Dale said the state used to only take into account DUI offenders' previous convictions from the prior five years when sentencing them, and raised the window to seven years in the 1980s and then 10 years recently.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, had also called for similar laws in Bay Area News Group stories, saying "It's incredible that in the state of California that we have not set an upper limit where enough is enough." However, he said a three-strikes law would be difficult to pass.
Hill said he is optimistic that the bill will pass, noting that it would not cost any money. Its first tests would likely be in the Assembly committees on public safety and judiciary and, if approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, it would take effect January 2011.