I’m not sure what I expected from the DUI Town Hall meeting hosted by State Representative Matthew Hill. I suppose I thought it would be a bunch of politicians and party activists sitting around, patting themselves on the back for the glorious legislation that they were pushing through the House. Boy, was I surprised.

The only “politician” present was Hill, and I saw no “party activists.” There were a couple of “Matthew Hill haters,” there, I’m sure, to gain fuel for their “I hate Matthew” fire. Few members of the press were present – NewsChannel 11, a representative from the Johnson City Press, and myself (if you want to consider me “press”). The rest of the 70 or so in attendance were actually concerned citizens, many of whom have lost children or other family members to drunk driving. This is what led to the emotional outbursts rather than reasoned debate on the issues.

The first emotional explosion occurred when a quiet, old lady had the nerve to suggest that part of the drunk driving problem is the fact that there are no alternative means of transportation in the area. When she mentioned “young people going out for an evening of relaxation,” I thought a couple of people might accost the poor woman. After such an outburst, I decided to keep my big mouth shut until after the presentation, when the more excitable citizens had headed home.

While I can’t imagine the heartache from which these parents and loved ones must suffer, I had hoped that consideration for the law would have been a factor in the “debate.” There was, however, little debate, and certainly no consideration for the law and how it applies to all citizens. As I said before, despite the fact that I merely had questions concerning some of the specifics of the bills, I kept my big trap shut for fear of being yelled at and called a drunk. Hill, to be fair, did a great job of moderating the meeting and trying to keep the conversation on track and as civil as possible, despite the emotional appeals.

The point of the Town Hall meeting was to make citizens aware of several pieces of legislation that are working their way through the House and Senate in Tennessee, and Hill provided a rundown of these bills. I’ll go over them briefly, providing links to the full text of the bills, and offer my concerns at the end.

HB2877/SB3037 A comprehensive bill requiring ignition interlock for DUI offenders; lowers threshold to .02 for repeat DUI offenders (beginning with the 2nd offense); lowers “extreme DUI” from .2 to .15; provides for Automatic License Revocation; stiffens penalties for refusing a Breathalyzer test.

HB2876/SB3041 Creates Class D felony for fifth and subsequent DUI offenders (with a prescribed prison term of 2-12 years) with a minimum of 360 consecutive day sentence; counts all convictions within 10 years of DUI date when calculating prior offenses and includes convictions of vehicular assault, vehicular homicide while intoxicated, and aggravated vehicular homicide.

HB2881/SB3040 Prohibits District Attorney from plea bargaining with person charged with DUI to any offense that does not involve unlawful operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant.

HB3059/SB3042 Creates Class B misdemeanor offense (prescribed sentence of 6 months in prison) of consuming alcoholic beverage while driving motor vehicle on public highway and Class C misdemeanor offense (prescribed sentence of 30 days in prison) of possessing open container of alcoholic beverage within passenger area of motor vehicle on public highway.

HB2875/SB3043 Requires healthcare providers to notify law enforcement officer at hospital if results of tests performed on driver of vehicle involved in collision indicate that the driver had a .08 percent BAC or was under the influence of drugs.

HB927/SB1081 Lowers the blood alcohol level for an “extreme DUI” offense from .20 percent to .15 percent.

HB3091/SB2869 Adds vehicular homicide as a result of the driver’s intoxication and aggravated vehicular homicide to offenses requiring at least 85 percent service of sentence prior to release eligibility.

My concerns, which I voiced to Representative Hill last night, are rather specific. We can get into the logic behind DUI laws in general, as I’m sure some of you will want to, but I want to begin with my concerns with these particular bills.

First, I asked Hill what is the point of lowering the BAC threshold to .02 for “repeat offenders.” According to Hill, the way the law is currently written, it is not how many DUI’s you’ve had that “count,” it’s how drunk you were when you got pulled over this time. So, someone who has had 8 DUI’s at .1 will be treated the same as someone who is facing his first DUI offense at the same BAC. The idea behind lowering the threshold is to, I suppose, give those repeat offenders a stiffer penalty.

My concern with this is mainly something that was discussed a bit in the comments section of my previous post on this meeting. Say, for example, some 21-year-old frat guy gets pulled over for a DUI in college. Can he not, 10 years later, go out with his wife and kids and have a beer with dinner and then drive home, without fear of becoming a “repeat offender?” Hill agreed with my concern, and suggested a set period of time in which the previous DUI would drop off the offender’s record.

My second major concern is the notion, which I again mentioned in my earlier post, of mandatory sentencing. I told Hill of my opposition to such measures, noting that, if judges are not handing down appropriate sentences, then we need to get new judges. Hill’s concern is that judges are in office for 8 year terms. While that does appear to be a long time, I believe that the “discretionary wiggle room” offered to judges is an important piece of our justice system that need not be circumvented by our legislature.

Despite a few other minor concerns, the bills, for one who supports DUI legislation at all, seem reasonable. It does, however, raise some philosophical questions concerning the singling out in the law of these particular dangerous drivers. While DUI fatalities seem to statistically significant, I wonder how deaths in alcohol-related crashes compare to deaths in crashes due to text messaging, eating, DWE (driving while elderly), or just being a selfish, careless driver. How many times have I seen tailgaters blaze past my car, passing me on double lines, clearly endangering the lives of all those nearby? I have nearly as much disdain (maybe just as much!) for tailgaters, speeders, and passers-on-double-lines as I do those who are so selfish that they can’t get a designated driver when they’ve had too much to drink.

So, why is it – and I’m not being disrespectful, merely asking a question – that we single out those who drink and drive, and not those who are too old, too stupid, too sleepy, or in too big a hurry to safely be on the road?

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