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WV House of Delegates hearing discusses bill that would alter DUI laws

By Michelle DillonThe Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — The West Virginia House of Delegates is considering a bill that would change the state’s drunk driving laws. 

The House had a hearing on SB 212 on Friday morning. Law enforcement officials, judges, lawyers, the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and others spoke at the hearing.

If the bill passes, it would do away with the Office of Administrative Hearings. This office hears cases having to do with the license suspension of people charged with driving under the influence (DUI). Should the bill pass, all DUI cases would be heard by the regular court system.

Senate Bill 212 was introduced into Senate on Feb. 9. The lead sponsor is Senator Charles S. Trump IV, R-Morgan. Co-sponsors are Senator Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Senator Mike Maroney, R-Marshall.

The bill was passed by Senate on March 13 by a vote of 27-7. Senator Bob Beach, D-Monongalia voted for the bill and Senator Roman Prezioso, D-Marion voted against the bill.

The bill was introduced in the House on March 14 and then referred to the House Judiciary Committee.

Supporters of SB 212 say that eliminating the Office of Administrative Hearings will save the state $3 million a year, according to WVMetroNews.

MADD’s director of state government affairs, Frank Harris testified at the hearing on the bill Friday. He said that magistrates and criminal defense attorneys are in support of SB 212.

“The main argument is the administrative hearing process is too burdensome on the offender, that it takes too long,” Harris said. “It should be noted that if it was so burdensome on the courts, and this is a point that I made during my testimony, if administrative license revocations are so burdensome on the courts, where were the efforts to repeal it in the 1980s, when this was originally enacted in West Virginia?”

He asked West Virginia Division of Motor Vehicles about administrative hearings for DUI license suspensions. The DMV has seen hearings go from 3,000 in 2014 to 1,500 last year, Harris said.

That is a 50 percent decline in administrative hearings. This means that defense attorneys aren’t making as much money, he said.

The bill would also make changes to West Virginia’s ignition interlock law.

The ignition interlock law was enacted in the state in 2014. It allows a DUI offender to waive their administrative hearing if they install an ignition interlock device in his or her car, Harris said.

West Virginia right now is one of 28 states as well as Washington, D.C., that requires ignition interlock for all drunk driving offenders, even on the first offense, according to MADD.

SB 212 would not allow anyone convicted of a felony DUI to be eligible to use an ignition interlock device. Any person convicted of a misdemeanor DUI offense would have to give their permission before they could participate in the ignition interlock program.

Since West Virginia has started its ignition interlock law, it has reduced drunk driving deaths by 50 percent.

MADD studied ignition interlock devices and their affect on drunk driving across the country. Between 2006 to 2016, ignition interlock devices stopped 24,331 attempts of people trying to drive with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 or higher. They stopped 1.77 million instances nationwide.

MADD, law enforcement, prosecutors and emergency physicians oppose SB 212, Harris said.

MADD national president Colleen Sheehey-Church said that West Virginia has reduced drunk driving fatalities by 50 percent since enacting that ignition interlock law. She wants to know who would want to change a law that did that and why.

“I can’t imagine the West Virginians, if they really knew what was happening, would say ‘Oh that’s OK. Public safety is now in jeopardy, no problem.’”

Sheehey-Church said magistrates claim that they could handle the case load that would be shifted to them if the bill passes. MADD’s concern is that DUIs will end in plea agreements. This would cause less drunk drivers to use ignition interlock devices, more drunk driving on state roads and more drunk driving related injuries and deaths.

“I’m appalled,” she said of the bill. “I will be absolutely appalled if this goes through. Our mission is to save lives, no matter which way we look at it. What we’re seeing here is a blatant attempt to take a piece of the judicial process and eliminate it for the good of a small party of defense attorneys.”

MADD is asking people to contact their representatives.

SB 212 could be up for a committee vote in the house as early as Monday, Harris said.

Email Michelle Dillon at [email protected].

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