DENVER – Colorado lawmakers Thursday advanced a measure that would create a felony crime for repeat DUI offenders. The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee unanimously.
For several years lawmakers have attempted to pass a felony DUI bill in Colorado. But concerns over valuing punishment over treatment killed previous attempts.
Lawmakers believe that this is the year to finally pass a measure.
“You can’t treat somebody who refuses to be treated,” said Rep. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, who is co-sponsoring the bill. “It is time to do something different for those who won’t stop a behavior.”
Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, the other sponsor on the bill, pointed out that lives are “shattered” as a result of DUI offenders.
“At some point, enough is enough,” McCann said. “We just cannot continue to allow people who are that intoxicated to drive on our streets because of the incredible damage that they can cause.”
The bill would create a felony charge after three DUI convictions. Colorado is among five states where drunken drivers face only misdemeanor charges punishable by up to a year in jail, even after repeated convictions.
Prosecutors also would be able to charge someone with a felony on a third offense if it occurs within seven years of the first conviction and there were aggravated circumstances, including having a child in the car, fleeing the scene, damaging property, or having a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or greater.
Lawmakers heard emotional testimony Thursday. Ellie Phipps, a Grand Junction woman, said her life profoundly changed when she was hit by a habitual drunken driver. Her life as an athlete ended as a result of the accident because of lifelong injuries.
“He, as do most habitual drunk drivers, had exposure to multiple rehabilitative programs and opportunities over the long period of multiple offenses,” Phipps said. “It did not deter him in the least from drinking and driving.
“It seems pretty clear an offender at this level has shown total, complete and repeated disregard,” she said. “They have instead become a death hazard on our public roads.”
Opponents of the bill agreed there needs to be a deterrence but questioned whether a felony conviction is the answer.
“It is not the severity of the punishment; it is the probability of being caught,” said Christie Donner, executive director of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition, which works on restorative justice issues.
“Punishment doesn’t change behavior, particularly for those who have been punished in the past,” Donner said. “It is not an effective way to change behavior. If you want to punish for the sake of punishment, then be aware that that’s what you’re doing. But it is not an agent for changing behavior.”
Lawmakers on the committee who supported the bill acknowledged the measure might not change behavior. But they said more severe punishments would at least keep repeat offenders off the road.
“While the drunk driver is in prison, that drunk driver is not killing people,” said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Kagan caused a bit of drama at the beginning of the more than four-hour hearing when he told the audience the committee would not be hearing the scheduled bill Thursday or even taking testimony from the public.
Several audience members, including Phipps, were concerned they had driven distances without being allowed to speak. Calm quickly resumed when Kagan announced that the committee would take testimony.
At first it was believed that there would be no vote on the bill Thursday, either. But Kagan reversed course on that, as well, later saying there would be a vote.
For committee members supporting the bill, the issue is the current system is not working.
“We’re talking about people who have been convicted seven, eight, nine times ...” said Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton. “Each of those results in treatment. If you’re talking about deterrence, there’s nothing deterring the people who get seven, eight, nine, 10, 12 DUIs. Obviously there’s a problem there. Obviously treatment isn’t working.”
Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth, said, “Everything is part of the solution, but I also think the punishment part of crime and punishment is a part of the solution.”