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Relatives and friends of people who died because of drunken drivers lowered the Alaska flag to half-staff this morning at the Dimond Courthouse, across the street from the Capitol, in the first observance of Drunk Driving Victims Remembrance Day.
Gov. Tony Knowles today signed House Bill 200 into law, establishing July 3 as Drunk Driving Victims Remembrance Day, as well as bills that crack down on drunken drivers, provide treatment incentives for offenders, and combat underage drinking.
With 54,000 arrests for drunken driving in Alaska in the past 10 years, including nearly 2,500 drivers charged with at least their third drunken-driving offense, "it should come as no surprise that in the last decade 434 people have died on Alaska roads at the hands of drunk drivers," Knowles said.
"This is a tragedy. There is no other way to describe it," he added.
Three of the nonpartisan bills were sponsored by Anchorage Republican Rep. Norm Rokeberg as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and one was sponsored by House Speaker Brian Porter, also an Anchorage Republican.
"The Legislature listened to the people and delivered on their commitment to act and to act proactively," Rokeberg said.
House Bill 132 lowers the legal presumption of drunken driving from 0.10 blood-alcohol content to 0.08, in keeping with a new federal law that makes federal transportation funds contingent on states' adopting the change. Alaska will be the 27th state to adopt the standard when that provision takes effect Sept. 1.
The new standard should prevent 500 deaths a year nationwide, said Millie Webb, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who lost two family members to a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 and was badly burned herself, along with her husband, in the crash.
The other provisions in the bill, and the other bills signed today, take effect immediately.
House Bill 132 also makes it easier to charge repeat drunken drivers with a felony. It allows the state to convict a person of a felony if they have been convicted of drunken driving two or more times since Jan. 1, 1996, within 10 years of the current offense. The old law set a five-year period.
And the bill strengthens the laws against bootlegging. It allows the damp cities of Kotzebue and Bethel to set up government distribution points where citizens would pick up alcohol they ordered from outside the cities, so that officials could judge whether the quantities will be used for personal consumption and not sold. Damp cities allow people to drink alcohol but not sell it.
It also reduces the amount of distilled spirits that can be imported monthly to a person in a "damp" village. And it reduces the amount of distilled spirits that triggers more serious penalties for bringing them into dry communities.
House Bill 172 sets up a pilot therapeutic court project in Anchorage this year and in Bethel next year for people who have multiple convictions for drunken driving. The bill allows the courts to withhold imposing a jail sentence or fine and to consider treatment plans with close judicial monitoring and quickly applied sanctions for relapses.
House Bill 179 establishes a graduated system of punishing people under 21 who are caught drinking or possessing alcohol. The bill replaces a maximum penalty of a $300 fine and loss of the driver's license. It comes in response to a December 2000 state court decision that required jury trials before minors could lose their driver's licenses for drinking.
The bill subjects minors to a fine of $200-$600 and at least 24 hours of community work service for a first offense. The penalty for the second offense is a $500 to $1,000 fine, at least 48 hours of community work service, and loss of driver's license for three months.
A third offense would bring a charge of habitual underage drinking, a misdemeanor that can be punished by a fine of up to $1,000, up to 90 days in jail, loss of driver's license for six months, and at least 96 hours of community work service.
The bill also requires judges to consider counseling or treatment as a condition of probation.
"I think the sanctions are reasoned," Robert Buttcane, an administrative juvenile probation officer, said in an interview before the signing ceremony. "It starts out with a more effective intervention than we have under the current law."