Panel derails tougher DWI bill

By Steve Terrell: The Santa Fe New Mexican

Some state senators cited financial reasons as a Senate committee on Monday effectively killed a bill that would have increased DWI penalties.

Currently there is no mandatory jail time for first-time DWI offenders in New Mexico.

However, Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, would impose a minimum mandatory jail term of 72 consecutive hours for a first DWI conviction and 120 consecutive hours for an aggravated DWI conviction. As an alternative, the bill would allow an offender to serve 30 days (50 days for aggravated DWI) in a “community corrections” program — which means the offender would have to wear an electronic monitoring device or have a 24-hour surveillance system in the home.

The bill, backed by Gov. Bill Richardson, also calls for a mandatory fine of $1,000 ($2,000 for aggravated DWI). Fines and jail time would increase with subsequent DWI convictions.

“We had policy questions, and we had fiscal questions,” Wirth told a reporter after the committee vote. Because of the severity of the state budget crisis, the bill was tabled, which almost certainly means it will die in the committee when the session adjourns late next week.

Legislators in recent years have routinely supported bills calling for tougher penalties for drunken driving.

Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, said Monday that in the past, the attitude of the Legislature was “the funding doesn’t matter if the policy is good. That’s what got us into this financial mess we’re in now.”

Judiciary Committee Chairman Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, noted that a high-ranking county official from conservative Chaves County had asked the committee to reject SB 3 because of the increased expenses it would cause her county jail.

“This is the first time in 30 years I’ve heard Chaves County say ‘we’ve got enough law and order.’”

According to a fiscal impact report on the bill, the proposal would cost about $1.5 million a year.

“The number of people sentenced to jail time will likely increase, especially if a DWI community corrections program is unavailable,” the report said, quoting the state Administrative Office of the Courts. Only 19 of the state’s 33 counties have community corrections programs. “Jail beds are also in short supply in many counties.”

The senators voting to table the bill included conservative Republicans such as Sens. Bill Payne, R-Albuquerque, and Clint Harden, R-Clovis, and Democrats like McSorley, Michael Sanchez, Richard Martinez of Espanola and Linda Lopez and Bernadette Sanchez, both of Albuquerque.

Voting in favor of SB 3 were Wirth, John Ryan and Sander Rue, both Albuquerque Republicans, and Tim Eichenberg, D-Albuquerque.

Harden said he believed the bill would be an “unfunded mandate” for counties.

Some Democrats who opposed the bill didn’t cite financial reasons.

Sen. Bernadette Sanchez said, “I’d rather see money for treatment instead of increased penalties. I’m sick of bills about penalties, penalties, penalties.”

However, the committee did keep alive another Wirth bill, SB 4, which would prohibit district attorneys from allowing drunken-driving suspects who refuse to submit to blood alcohol tests to enter into plea agreements in which the DWI charge is dropped.

Wirth noted that, unlike the first bill, the fiscal impact report for SB 4 said the financial impact on the state would be minimal.

Testifying in favor of that bill was Dan Koffman of Santa Fe, whose daughter Avree Koffman was the only survivor of a June 2009 crash in which four friends riding in her car were killed. The driver of the other car, suspected drunk driver Scott Owens, is awaiting trial on four counts of vehicular homicide and one charge of causing great bodily harm.

Koffman told the committee that laws such as SB 4 “change the culture,” which he said currently doesn’t take drunken driving seriously enough. It shouldn’t be a matter of money versus saving lives, he said.

Contact Steve Terrell at 986-3037 or sterrell@sfnewmexican.com