Utah lawmaker's revisions to DUI law may include self-defense weapons exemption

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SALT LAKE CITY — The state lawmaker behind Utah's .05 percent DUI threshold is preparing tweaks to the law that pertain not just to driving but also to carrying and firing a gun while intoxicated.

Rep. Norm Thurston seeks to carve out an exemption for people who are under the influence but use a weapon to defend themselves or someone else, he said Wednesday.

That's among a handful of potential changes the Provo Republican said he's working on in advance of the 2018 Utah Legislature, which gets underway next month.

Thurston earlier this year sponsored the successful proposal that is set to lower the existing .08 percent blood alcohol limit to .05 come next December.

Carrying a dangerous weapon with a blood alcohol level beyond the legal limit currently is a misdemeanor in Utah. The blood alcohol standard for that offense is set to drop, just as it will for DUIs in December 2018.

"We're looking at modifying it to say that there is an overriding feature that if you are using that dangerous weapon to defend yourself, or your home, or a family member, or another person, (then) that's justifiable — that even if you've been drinking, you still have the right to defend yourself," Thurston said.

He has not yet filed a draft of the bill, saying he's still hashing out the details. But the Salt Lake Area Restaurant Association stands ready to oppose the measure.

"The law ties firearms with what's considered over the limit. That has to stay," said Michele Corigliano, the association's executive director. "If they can't drive a car, they certainly can't make a decision on whether it's self-defense or not."

Corigliano said Thurston's plan, though still in its early stages, keeps the new DUI penalty in place but creates exemptions for "certain special interest groups." Her organization, along with national restaurant and alcohol representatives, resisted the lower threshold last year.

They say it punishes drinkers for having one glass of wine and fails to address repeat offenses. Corigliano's group believes texting and eating impair drivers worse than a .05 percent blood alcohol level does, Corigliano said.


The restaurant association would approve of a graduated system similar to Colorado's law, where a blood alcohol level of more than .05 percent but less than .08 constitutes a lesser, misdemeanor offense rather than a DUI, she said.

Thurston said he and his colleagues have considered such a tiered setup but that it would prove impractical.

"The people who profit from selling alcohol want to distract from what's really going on," he said.

Under his 2017 law that has not yet taken effect, "people still will probably drink just as much as they always have, maybe more, I don't know," Thurston said. But it will cause people to "make a plan in advance for when they go out drinking so they know how they're going to get home, and it doesn't involve them driving a car."

Rep. Lee Perry, also an employee of the Utah Highway Patrol, said Thurston's weapon exemption makes sense.


"If it's ruled self-defense by a county attorney, I wouldn't have any heartburn with it. Just because a person's impaired doesn't mean they don't have a right to defend themselves," the Republican from Perry said Wednesday.

Thurston also is planning to close a gap in the law that he says allows only those with more than one DUI offense to get a provisional license to drive to work. His in-the-works bill would make such permits available to first-time offenders, he said.

Another tweak from Thurston, if it passes, will erase a piece of the law that puts anyone with less than two years' driving experience on a list of restricted drivers because it's too difficult to enforce, he said.

Another planned update would clarify liability in cases wherein customers are overserved, Thurston said.

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