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SALT LAKE CITY — A proposed Utah bill would increase the charge for someone arrested for the second time for driving under the influence.
"We have an increasing problem with impaired driving. And so we see increased number of accidents, including fatalities, across the state," said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, during a Senate Health and Human Services Committee meeting on Wednesday.
Nationally, the past two years were some of the deadliest for road fatalities, according to roadway safety coalition Advocates For Highway and Auto Safety. In 2021, a total of 320 people were killed in crashes on Utah roadways — the deadliest year on the state's roads since 2002, when 329 people were killed.
State officials said 120 deaths last year were tied to impaired driving, which was a 13% decline from 2020, but still the second-highest number since 2013.
Would tougher penalties deter DUI?
In an effort to stem drunk driving, Nelson's bill, HB143, would increase a person's second DUI offense from a class B misdemeanor to a class A misdemeanor. Currently, both first and second offenses get handled in justice court.
The bill received a 3-2 favorable recommendation from the committee and will move to the full Senate for a vote.
"Our thinking is if we can elevate the second offense to a class A misdemeanor, that we can shift those cases to district court where the judge has a broader range of sentencing options, Adult Probation and Parole is available to help provide their tracking and treatment of the second-time offenders. And if we catch them early on the second offense, we can avoid the third offense," Nelson said.
Will Carlson, with the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, noted that penalties for other crimes increase with each occurrence.
Offenders who "keep offending" end up being surprised when the penalties increase to potential prison time after their second offense. Under current law, the third DUI offense is a third-degree felony.
"This is an important deterrent, and it will have an impact on public safety," Carlson said.
A class A misdemeanor can carry a higher fine and more jail time — up to 364 days in jail instead of up to 180, he added.
But some questioned whether the bill would prevent people from continuing to drive under the influence.
Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi, noted people in crisis who aren't thinking clearly are those who tend to drive under the influence.
Carlson emphasized that the enhanced penalty will increase resources to prevent offenders from continuing to drive under the influence, including supervision through Adult Probation and Parole.
When the meeting opened for public comment, Steve Burton, with the Defense Attorneys Association, contended that DUIs have actually been consistently decreasing for the past 15 years — except for during the pandemic and since the state changed the DUI law.
In 2019, Utah lowered its DUI threshold to 0.05% blood alcohol level — the strictest DUI limit in the nation.
Over 70% of those who get a first-time DUI charge never receive a second, Burton said.
He added that second offenses do prompt stricter penalties, including 10 days of mandatory jail instead of two days. The fine also increases, he said.
Burton also questioned whether supervision by Adult Probation and Parole would actually deter DUI offenders, as those officers would need to spend most of their time supervising more serious offenders.
But Taryn Hyatt, who said she is in recovery for substance use, believes the threat of going to jail for a longer time on a second offense would have caused her to rethink driving under the influence, she said.
"I would like to see this legislation move forward because unfortunately, for some, we need to have a consequence and we need to be removed," she said.
Creating consistency in code
Another bill, HB29, seeks to make Utah's driving penalties consistent across state code.
Sponsor Rep. Cheryl Acton, R-West Jordan, said a constituent reached out to her with the concern her son had been incorrectly charged and sentenced for a driving offense. The appellate court agreed with the mother, but the Utah Supreme Court disagreed, Acton said.
The instance highlighted a "lack of clarity" in state code, she said.
The bill brings the code for DUI, driving with a measurable controlled substance and automobile homicide into one section of code to create consistency in charging and sentencing.
Carlson noted when a driver has drugs or alcohol on board and they hit someone else, the punishment they face depends on the drug they had in their system and "the section the prosecutor picks," demonstrating a lack of alignment in criminal code.
Under the bill, if someone causes death in a crash while under the influence, they will face a second-degree felony. If they cause serious bodily injury, it will be a third-degree felony. If they cause minor injury, it will be a class A misdemeanor. In current law, each of those offenses can face different penalties, Carlson said.
The bill received a unanimous favorable recommendation from the committee.