The state House has approved a toned-down version of a bill to crack down on drunken drivers and another measure to beef up penalties for underage drinking.
The drunken driving measure still carries stiffer penalties for repeat offenders and lowers the legal blood-alcohol level for drivers. But the bill no longer requires forfeiture or immobilization of vehicles used in the offenses. The new version lets judges make the call whether vehicles should be confiscated.
Lawmakers also deleted a so-called "scarlet letter" provision requiring the state to issue temporary permits in distinctive colors to people arrested for driving while intoxicated.
Bill sponsor Rep. Norman Rokeberg unsuccessfully argued against the amendments but in the end urged lawmakers to pass the bill, saying it toughens Alaska's already tough laws.
"It's not a silver bullet and it will not end all drunken driving," said Rokeberg, an Anchorage Republican. "If it causes more than just a few people to change their habits to think before they get behind the wheel after they've had a drink we will have made progress."
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Eric Croft argued to strip the forfeiture language, saying it could have unintended consequences. Even if a drunken driver used a stolen car, the measure would
require forfeiture of the vehicle, he said.
"As it's written, there could be a lot of unjust results," Croft said.
Juneau activist Cindy Cashen pushed for the stricter language and watched from the public gallery as the amendment passed 22 to 15.
"I'm disappointed they took out vehicle forfeiture," said Cashen, whose father Ladd Macaulay was one of two Juneau men killed by a drunken driver on Seward Highway last year. "We have provided the Legislature with various studies done in other states where it's proven vehicle forfeiture does make a difference with repeat offenders as well as first-time offenders."
The House also deleted a section requiring people arrested for driving while intoxicated to post a distinctively colored temporary permit much as new car owners tape temporary white licenses on their back windows.
Fairbanks Democrat John Davies argued it is unfair to force such a penalty on people who haven't been convicted. He successfully deleted the distinctive color provision, calling it a "scarlet letter."
The House left the rest of the bill intact, including a provision to lower the legal blood alcohol level for drivers from 0.10 to 0.08. It also would bump the fines from $250 to $1,500 for a first offense, $500 to $3,000 for a second offense and from $1,000 to $4,000 for a third offense. If a person was convicted of three driving-under-the-influence charges in 10 years it would be a felony, punishable by a fine of $10,000 and a minimum sentence of 180 days.
The House also passed an underage drinking bill Saturday that would replace a law invalidated by the Alaska Supreme Court. Under the previous law underage drinking was a violation not a crime and the punishment included losing one's license to drive. The Supreme Court ruled in December that taking minors' drivers' licenses without giving them a jury trial violated their rights to due process.
Because of the cost of providing jury trials to all underage drinkers, that part of the law hasn't been enforced since the ruling.
"Minors now go virtually unpunished for possessing or consuming alcohol," said Rokeberg.
They can be fined a maximum of $300 and usually are fined just $100, which he doesn't see as a sufficient deterrent. The Judiciary Committee that Rokeberg leads sponsored a bill to beef up the penalties.
Under House Bill 179, minors caught drinking would be fined $200 to $600 for their first offense and required to attend classes on alcohol. They wouldn't lose their license on the first offense, so the state would avoid the cost of a jury trial. Those caught twice would lose their license for three months, so the state would have to provide them a trial. They would also be subject to $500 to $1,000 fines and have to complete 48 hours of community work service.
The penalty for a third offense would be a six-month license suspension, 96 hours of work service and a $1,000 fine. Under the bill, a judge could require any underage drinker to go to an alcohol screening program and follow the program recommendations, which might include treatment. They would also be placed on probation for a year or until they are 21 years old, whichever is later.
Both bills head to the Senate.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.
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