CATEGORY: EDT Editorials
A broadly based coalition Wednesday formally started an effort to further tighten Mississippi's DUI laws. The coalition, significantly, includes a legislator who was convicted of driving drunk, admits his potentially fatal error, and now campaigns to close all the loopholes used to wiggle out of punishment for the crime.
Legislators in 1995 strengthened the law when they lowered the DUI threshold from 0.10 to 0.08 for drivers under age 21, the legal drinking age in Mississippi. More needs to be done.
The DUI case involving Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae, who pleaded no contest after refusing to take a blood/alcohol test following a wreck in which he was the driver and only passenger, helped increase interest in the proposed reforms. McRae's license suspension was reversed under a hardship ruling. Many Mississippians believe McRae mocked the law his position represents. At the very least Justice McRae's behavior drew attention to the sensible changes put forward Wednesday:
- Prevent the reduction of any DUI to a lesser offense;
- Remove all DUI cases from Youth Court; kids who commit adult crimes like DUI need to face the same music so they will understand their personal irresponsibility;
- Provide 10 days notice to the Commissioner of Public Safety before any hearing to reinstate a DUI-suspended driver's license based on hardship;
- Define more specifically what refusing a breath test means;
- Define what a hardship ruling is; don't let offenders off because they are inconvenienced by loss of a license;
- Require vehicle forfeiture to the county on the third DUI conviction; and
- Require a license suspension for any underage person caught drinking and driving, even if the blood/alcohol is below the 0.08 level for intoxication.
The legislation, which already has more than 60 sponsors in the House, where convicted DUI offender Rep. Keith Montgomery, a Republican from Clinton, is its most relentless supporter. Montgomery, re-elected in November after his DUI case in April, stood in front of parents whose children were killed by drunk drivers. Montgomery, the parents, and members of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving all nail DUI behavior for what it isÉ gross personal and social irresponsibility. Nobody justices, judges, lawyers, wealthy laypersons, politicians or average citizens should be able to use the law to escape deserved consequences.
The sobering facts about driving under the influence should wipe away any doubts in legislators' minds about the need for an airtight law:
- More than 360 people were killed in alcohol-related traffic accidents in Mississippi during 1994 (the 1995 numbers aren't available yet);
-Almost 27,000 people in Mississippi were arrested on DUI charges; about 94 percent were found guilty and paid $7.3 million in fines; and
- 2,400 teen-agers were arrested for DUI in 1994.
Mississippians, sadly, have a long history of cultural tolerance for driving under the influence. Intolerance should be standard on this issue because the ultimate consequence for innocent victims may mean death.
Make Mississippi's DUI laws impervious to the maneuvers of anybody who tries to get around them. Make the punishment hard and certain. Make the DUI laws a powerful deterrent to underage drinking.
The best way for Mississippi to deal with its DUI problems is to get tough on itself.