Tougher driving under influence law in effect

Posted 7/5/11

While being debated in the Legislature, the bill drew arguments that the change is an invasion of suspects’ privacy and rights. However, local law enforcement officials say the new law simply treats DUI suspects like those suspected of any other …

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Tougher driving under influence law in effect


Driving drunk has always been a risky proposition, but it became even riskier last week.

A new state law that took effect Friday eliminated suspected drunk drivers’ right to refuse a sobriety test. The new law allows police to apply for a search warrant if they suspect a driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs. If granted, the warrant forces the suspect to provide a blood, breath or urine sample for chemical testing.

While being debated in the Legislature, the bill drew arguments that the change is an invasion of suspects’ privacy and rights. However, local law enforcement officials say the new law simply treats DUI suspects like those suspected of any other crime.

“I think what it does is it finally puts DUIs on par with every other crime in the state of Wyoming,” said Park County Attorney Bryan Skoric. “It allows us to gather the evidence that’s needed for a successful prosecution, and for years and years DUI stood on its own.”

Previously, a person being arrested for driving under the influence could refuse a test — though it did come at a cost. A first refusal meant losing your license for six months; that increased to 18 months if it was your second, and the state could require you to put an interlock device in your vehicle.

However, in refusing a test, a suspect also could weaken a DUI case against them in court. Skoric said “without question” there have been people in Park County who skirted more serious punishment by refusing a test.

Data indicates repeat offenders figured that out: Wyoming drivers facing a second DUI arrest were nearly twice as likely to refuse a test (42 percent of the time) than first time offenders (25 percent of time), the bill’s sponsor, State Rep. Keith Gingery, R-Jackson, has said.

“I don’t know any other crimes out there where the suspect out there can simply say ‘No’ and law enforcement has no recourse,” Skoric said.

Powell Police Chief Tim Feathers said the right to refuse a blood test was “absurd.”

“We don’t do it for murderers, we don’t do it for burglars, we don’t do it for rapists, why do we do it for drunk drivers?” he said.

Under the new law, a driver suspected of driving under the influence of alcohol will be asked to submit to a breath, blood or urine test. If they refuse, a police officer can fill out a written request for a search warrant from a Park County judge, in most cases Circuit Court Judge Bruce Waters. If the arrest is made after hours, the document will be faxed to Waters’ house. The process will be sped up by a boiler-plate warrant application that allows officers to check boxes of observed impairment (bloodshot watery eyes, an admission of drinking, soiled clothing, etc.), any field test results and a place to fill out a brief narrative of the arrest.

The law allows an officer to ask for a warrant by phone, but, siding with judge’s concerns that Wyoming Constitution may require a written affidavit for a warrant, Skoric crafted a Park County procedure that relies on written requests.

Feathers said the turnaround time on an approved warrant is expected to be about an hour — plenty of time to get a sample before the alcohol in a drunk suspect’s body has been broken down.

He said the procedure for obtaining a sample from a suspected drunk driver will essentially be identical to the process used to get biological samples from suspects in other types of crimes, such as a rape or burglary.

“It just now puts this on the same footing as any other criminal suspect,” he said.

In the event a blood sample is required, it would be drawn by a health professional — likely at either the Powell or Cody hospital — and never by officers.

While some legislators worried about forced blood draws of struggling citizens, Feathers said that’s been a rare occurrence in other states with similar laws.

The samples are specifically barred from being used to create a DNA database.

While Feathers said the new procedure will essentially be “business as usual” for the Police Department, it could mean more late-night work for judges.

“Really, the biggest impact is going to be on the judge,” said Feathers.

Waters and Court Magistrate Matt Winslow, who is also a defense attorney, both declined to comment on the new procedures, saying it would be inappropriate, given their positions. Three local criminal defense attorneys also did not return Tribune messages seeking comment on the changes to the law.

More than a third of all arrests in Wyoming are for driving under the influence. Between July 2009 and June 2010, the most recent compiled data available, there were 220 DUI arrests in Park County; 72 of those occurred in Powell.

It’s unknown how many people will make officers get a warrant instead of just submitting to a test; Skoric hopes there won’t be many.

Of course, he’d prefer people just obey the law by not driving while impaired.

“Certainly, driving under the influence is never a good idea,” Skoric said.