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Target: Drunken drivers

Lawmakers file seven bills to toughen state's liquor laws

Posted: Friday, January 12, 2001

People who get drunk, then drive, should know state lawmakers are putting them in their legislative crosshairs.

Lawmakers have introduced seven bills to crack down on drunken drivers and some of the bills probably will pass. Republican leaders in the majority have put tougher alcohol laws on their wish lists this session in response to a string of drunken driving deaths last year.

A measure introduced by Rep. Joe Green this week would make it illegal for people to drink liquor for a year or more if they are convicted of drunken driving. People convicted more than twice would be banned from drinking alcohol for five years.

Merchants who sell liquor would know who is ineligible to buy it because offenders would be required to carry drivers licenses with a distinctive color. Also, the state would notify liquor stores of the offenders. Under the bill, a person who gives alcohol to someone who is not allowed to have it also could lose their purchasing privileges for six months.

Green, an Anchorage Republican, defended the idea by pointing to other laws. He said the state denies licenses to people who abuse their driving privileges, and it bans people from fishing and hunting if they violate fish and game laws.

"It's time we treated alcohol abusers the same way. If you abuse alcohol, you're going to lose the privilege to drink," said Green.

Another measure introduced by Rep. Pete Kott this week would stiffen penalties against repeat offenders. Under the bill, people convicted of drunken driving three times or more would be subject to steeper fines and more jail time.

Current law applies two sets of penalties to people with at least two previous convictions who are caught driving drunk again. If the offenses are spaced at least five years apart, courts may apply a more lenient sentence. If the offenses occur within five years, the penalties are more strict.

Kott's bill would apply the stricter penalties to all people convicted of drunken driving three or more times, regardless of how much time passes between offenses.

Under the measure, people with three or more convictions would pay at least $5,000 and spend a minimum 120 days to nearly a year in jail, depending on the number of previous offenses.

A bill by Rep. Norm Rokeberg goes even further. The Anchorage Republican wants repeat offenders to pay at least $10,000 per offense and spend a minimum one year in jail for a third conviction, two years for a fourth and three years for a fifth. His measure also calls for a minimum 10-year sentence for drunken drivers who kill people.

Both bills would make it a felony to be convicted of drunken driving more than twice.

"There has to be some teeth in the law and as a felony, if you lose rights and privileges, I think that has more effectiveness," said Kott, an Eagle River Republican.

Kott said he plans to add an amendment to his bill allowing people to drop the felony conviction from their records if they agree to take a new drug that curbs the desire for alcohol and wear an ankle bracelet and monitoring device during probation.

"If they complete the program and have no additional behavior problems related to alcohol, the felony will be dismissed," Kott said.

Three lawmakers also are pushing bills to lower the legal blood-alcohol level in drivers from 0.10 to 0.08. A new law passed by Congress requires states make the change to 0.08 or risk losing federal highway funds. Senate Majority Leader Loren Leman said although Republicans haven't talked about it yet, he expects the Legislature will approve the tougher limit on blood-alcohol levels.

"I believe it will become law this year," said Leman, an Anchorage Republican.

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, has introduced a bill to increase the tax on alcohol by about 25 cents a drink. Although some Republicans have said they will seriously discuss the idea, the House and Senate majorities have not decided whether to endorse it.

Kathy Dye can be reached at kdye@juneauempire.com.



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