Lawyers mull impact of new DUI standard
People who drive after drinking alcohol will take an even bigger risk starting July 1 when Colorado adopts a tougher standard for driving-under-the-influence arrests.Colorado bowed to federal pressure to lower the blood alcohol content level for a DUI arrest from .1 to .08. The feds have pressured states to lower the level by threatening to withhold highway dollars from those who don’t comply.Assistant District Attorney Lawson Wills said the state’s passage of the new law should help in reducing drunk driving.”People are going to be more wary,” Wills said. “Now it’s that much easier to get into trouble.”You cannot take the risk of having more than two beers in an hour and getting behind the wheel,” he added.Drivers can still be arrested for driving while ability impaired (DWAI) when their blood alcohol content is at or above .05. Aspen criminal defense attorney John Van Ness said he fears that all the publicity about the lower DUI level will confuse drivers by making them lose sight of the fact that trouble really starts at a BAC of .05.Because an arrest can still be made for any BAC above .05, Van Ness believes the altered DUI standard “as a practical matter is mostly meaningless.”But another criminal defense attorney in the Aspen area, Dan Shipp, believes the new law will have a big impact. The “vast majority” of people who he represents have BACs between .075 and .11. People at the lower end of that spectrum may be more willing to fight the charge because so much will be at stake, according to Shipp. Drivers convicted of DUI can have their license revoked for one year.”What I see is you’re going to see a lot more people going to trial,” said Shipp.Under current law, a BAC between .08 and .1 qualifies as driving while ability impaired. Under the new law, such a reading will qualify as driving under the influence of alcohol.A conviction of DWAI results in a penalty of eight points against a license. That’s not enough, by itself, for revocation.A DUI conviction is 12 points, enough for a revocation for one year.Also under the new law, people with a BAC above .08 will be required to attend a hearing by the Department of Motor Vehicles that could affect their driving privileges.Wills said he doesn’t believe the new law will increase the number of drunk driving cases filed in Pitkin County. He said about 450 DUI and DWAI cases are typically prosecuted each year.However, it will affect how those cases get processed. The tougher standard will alter the willingness of the district attorney’s office to negotiate to reduce some DUI charges to DWAI, according to Wills.As a general guideline, the district attorney’s office will work with drivers who didn’t get in an accident and didn’t cause trouble for the arresting officer as long as their BAC was below .18, according to Wills. The charge against those drivers is often reduced.With the DUI standard dropping, the general guideline used by the district attorney’s office for negotiating a lesser charge will also drop, Wills said. Now a driver must generally have a BAC at or below .15 to warrant consideration of a lesser charge, he said.Those general guidelines were set by District Attorney Mac Myers, according to Wills. They apply to Pitkin, Garfield and Rio Blanco counties, the territory covered by the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s office. Eagle County is in a different judicial district with its own guidelines. Defense attorney Shipp is concerned that problems he alleges already exist in drunk driving enforcement will be exacerbated with the new law. Shipp claims, based on his experience, that a fair share of drivers are stopped not because they are driving erratically but because they have minor equipment failures.”We do have officers that travel our roads between Aspen and Glenwood Springs who are overly aggressive,” Shipp claimed. “They’re taking people off the road because their tag lights [illuminating license plates] are out.”Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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