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House approves ignition interlock bill

June 10, 2012

STATE HOUSE – The House this past week approved legislation to increase use of the vehicle ignition interlock system for those convicted of driving under the influence or refusing a chemical test.
“The greatest benefit of ignition interlock is that it protects the public from a person with a history of making bad decisions about getting behind the wheel drunk,” said House Majority Whip J. Patrick O’Neill (D-Dist. 59, Pawtucket), the sponsor of the bill. “It’s not merely punitive. It has the very practical effect of stopping drunk drivers before they can start their cars, to prevent them from hurting others or themselves.”
Under current law, ignition interlock – a device that requires a driver to submit a breath test to check for sobriety and prevents them from starting their car if they fail – may be part of the sentence imposed on those convicted of drunken driving more than once within a five-year period.
The legislation makes ignition interlock mandatory for repeat DUI offenders, as well as those who repeatedly refuse to take a chemical sobriety test. It also expands the law so judges may impose ignition interlock on first-time offenders of DUI or chemical test refusal, although it will not be mandatory for first-time offenders unless the offender’s blood alcohol limit is above .15 percent (almost twice the legal limit).
The changes are proposed as an alternative to “work licenses,” which some other states allow repeat offenders to obtain when their driver’s licenses are suspended. Work licenses are supposed to be used only to get to work or for work-related driving, but it’s difficult to prevent people from using them for other purposes.
The bill recognizes that lengthy license suspensions are not always effective as a means of preventing habitual drunken drivers from continuing to drive under the influence. Many of those whose licenses are suspended drive anyway, especially if driving is necessary for them to get to work. The legislation would allow judges some discretion to issue shorter license suspensions, but would mandate use of the interlock system when the license is reinstated.
Under the legislation, a first-time DUI conviction would carry, in addition to other existing penalties, six months to a year of interlock use when the license is reinstated. A first-time chemical test refusal would carry one to two years of the ignition interlock. (The bill maintains the current practice of mandating longer sentences for refusal convictions than for DUIs. Representative O’Neill sponsored the legislation in 2006 that instituted those longer penalties for refusals to discourage drivers from refusing those tests as a means to avoid DUI conviction.) Those convicted a second time of DUI within a five-year period would get a one- to two-year interlock sentence, and subsequent DUI offenses would get two to four years. For refusal, a second offense would draw two to four years of interlock, and subsequent offenses would get four to 10 years.
The legislation requires the convicted person to pay the cost of installing the system, plus a $100 administrative court cost. It would also require proof of installation, as well as regular monitoring of the system.
Additionally, the bill would make it a misdemeanor to tamper with the system, ask someone else to use the system to start the car, or for the person sentenced to ignition interlock to drive a vehicle without it, with violations punishable by up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. That penalty would also be applicable to anyone who breathes into the system to start the car for the person sentenced to use the interlock. Prior to removal of the interlock requirement, the Division of Motor Vehicles would review each driver’s driving record, and could impose up to another year of interlock use if he or she is found to have not complied with interlock requirements.
Supporters of the bill include Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin and the Division of Motor Vehicles.
Gabrielle M. Abbate, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the bill is a practical solution that recognizes the need to allow people to work to support themselves and their families, but prevents them from getting behind the wheel drunk again.
“This is about public safety,” said Abbate. “Interlock protects the general public and it has been proven to change the behavior of the people using it….We understand that people need to get to work. This is a way to let them do that while keeping everyone safe.”
Similar legislation (2012-S 2838A) has been introduced in the Senate by Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence). It has been recommended by the Senate Judiciary Committee for approval by the full Senate.

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