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March 20, 2012 8:06 am

Tougher DUI law approved

Written by CJ Baker

The state of Wyoming is more than tripling the maximum sentence for repeated drunken or impaired driving.

A bill sponsored by state Rep. Sam Krone, R-Cody — overwhelmingly passed by the Legislature last month and recently signed into law by Gov. Matt Mead — says offenders who drive while under the influence for a fourth or subsequent time in a decade can receive as much as seven years in prison.

The felony charge previously carried a maximum sentence of two years behind bars. Wyoming’s DUI laws apply to people who drive while under the influence of alcohol and/or other drugs.

Krone, a deputy Park County prosecuting attorney, took issue with the fact that two years was the most someone could get for repeated impaired driving, even if it was, say, a 12th offense.

“This bill is aimed mainly at the repeat offenders, what I would call hard-core offenders, that we are seeing more and more in the court systems — folks that are having five, six, seven DUIs,” Krone said on the House floor.

“This allows the court to take those individuals off the streets for an extended period of time,” he said.

Additionally, Krone said the longer maximum also enables longer terms of probation, allowing judges to ensure an individual completes an intense drug treatment.

House Speaker Ed Buchanan, R-Torrington, leant his support to the bill on the floor. With the two-year maximum, he said it was a “kind of a waste of money” and “kind of defeats the whole purpose” to order repeat offenders to complete lengthy treatment programs.

“By the time they get there (to prison), they’re not going to be there long enough to complete the program,” Buchanan said.

The bill passed the House on a 58-0 vote and the Senate 26-4.

After signing the bill, Gov. Mead called the legislation a “good first step” in addressing Wyoming’s drunk driving problem.

The former federal prosecutor said he’d also like to see enhanced penalties for higher blood alcohol content levels.

“It’s just much more dangerous,” Mead said of the difference between a .10 percent blood alcohol level and, say, a .25 or .28 percent level.

Statewide, there were 28 individuals sentenced to prison for a fourth DUI in 2011, 34 in 2010 and 27 sentenced in 2009.

A Tribune review of Park County District Court records showed at least six convictions under the statute in 2011. For a Montana man arrested in August, it was his sixth such offense in five years; for a Cody man arrested in July, it ended up as the eighth conviction of his life. The Treasure State resident received 19 to 22 months; the Codyite received 20 months to two years.

Another half-dozen cases alleging fourth DUIs are currently pending in Park County’s District Court from arrests in 2011 and 2012.

The increased potential penalty will apply only to individuals arrested after July 1, when the law takes effect.

A third drunk driving conviction in 10 years is a misdemeanor punishable by no less than 30 days of jail time and no more than six months.

Mead created a Governor’s Council on Impaired Driving last year to look at possible ways to curtail drunken driving and deaths caused by drunk and impaired drivers.

Wyoming roads saw 157 fatalities related to impaired driving between 2008 and 2010.

Over that three-year period in Park County, there were 18 people killed or seriously injured in crashes involving impaired driving, said Cody Beers, a regional spokesman for the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

Beers also sits on the governor’s impaired driving council.

“It (alcohol) is a major player in highway safety issues,” he said. “And that’s why we’re trying to influence people about making good decisions before they make the decision to drink.”

Beers encourages people to have a contingency plan in place before drinking.

“If you wait until you go to the bar to find a ride home, it’s probably too late in many cases,” he said.

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