From Staff Reports
Several major new laws addressing drunk driving are among a wide range of legislation that became effective on July 1 as Tennessee ushered in a new fiscal year. The new laws focus on strengthening penalties for the worst offenders, ensuring a criminal history background check is conducted to detect prior DUI arrests, and requiring judges order ignition interlock devices for drunk drivers unless a reason can be shown otherwise.
The law strengthening penalties for the worst offenders, sponsored by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Randy McNally, elevates a DUI offense for those convicted six or more times from a Class E felony to a Class C felony. The move more than doubles the amount of time served. It also requires prior convictions for alcohol-related offense, including those committed out-of-state, be counted as prior convictions, regardless of when they were committed.
“Very often when a fatal accident occurs caused by a drunk driver, it’s a multiple offender,” said Senator McNally. “This new law raises the penalties significantly to keep the most dangerous offenders who drink, drive and kill off Tennessee roads.”
Legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris also addresses the issue of multiple offenders. Upon arrest for a DUI, vehicular assault, vehicular homicide or aggravated vehicular homicide, fingerprints must be taken of the offender and submitted to the TBI within five days. If the offender is convicted of the offense, the fingerprints must be submitted to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) within seven days.
The measure stems from a tragic crash in Mississippi involving the deaths of two Shelby County students by a driver who carried five convictions of first offense DUI and was out on bond for his sixth DUI. Records reveal three counties and one municipality in Mississippi failed to inform the Mississippi Department of Public Safety about the convictions so it could be logged into the NCIC database, which is accessible by law enforcement officers in their squad cars to check the criminal backgrounds of arrestees.
“This tragedy brought to our attention, as well as Mississippi’s, the need to have the appropriate records logged in and available so that multiple DUI offenders do not fall through the cracks and are accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” said Leader Norris. “These drivers pose a serious threat to public safety.”
A separate measure sponsored by Norris that becomes effective on Friday requires a criminal history background search upon arrest to determine prior arrests for DUI vehicular assault, vehicular homicide and aggravated vehicular homicide.
The new law requiring ignition interlocks that goes into effect July 1 provides that a device must be ordered for all convicted DUI offenders unless the judge provides a finding of fact for not ordering it. Although Tennessee has mandated the use of interlock devices, there has only been a 15 to 20 percent compliance rate because judges were required to provide a reason why the device should be installed.
“Studies have shown that states that have enacted this type of legislation have been very successful and reduced DUI fatalities by up to 50 percent,” said Senator John Stevens, sponsor of the bill. “If we see similar results in Tennessee, it would mean saving over 100 lives per year.”