In Colorado, each year more than 240 people are killed and 4,000 are seriously injured in alcohol-related crashes. This is more than a statistic to Frank Martinez, whose 37-year old nephew Gilbert and his young sons, ages 6 and 1, were killed in Weld County last January by a drunk driver with seven DUIs. Martinez, and other DUI accident victim advocates like him, have been urging state lawmakers for stiffer DUI accident laws, and their calls have been heard.
Colorado is about to join 46 other states with a long-awaited tough new DUI law that makes repeated drunk driving a felony. Current law only treats a DUI as a misdemeanor, regardless of how many offenses a driver racks up, which means these dangerous drivers are usually right back on the road, putting motorists at risk. For nearly a decade, similar bills have failed to gain traction because some lawmakers feared that making repeat DUI offenses a felony could put a financial strain on state courts and prisons. However, this time around, Colorado House Bill 1043 received overwhelming bipartisan support in both legislative chambers, and on May 18, the bill headed to Governor Hickenloopers desk, where he vowed to sign the measure.
“If you are someone who persistently continues to demonstrate that you are going to put high school seniors with their whole lives ahead of them or two or six-year-old kids with their whole lives ahead of them in danger we need the ability to say, you don’t have the right to put those families at risk any longer,” says State Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, a bill sponsor.
Under current law, thousands of Colorado drivers convicted of two or more DUI charges are still on the roads, getting little more than a slap on the wrist. In fact, a Denver Post investigation of 202 vehicular homicide DUI cases found that the current DUI laws were not protecting the public, noting that many repeat offenders never receive any jail time, and among those who receive short sentences, many were released only to drive drunk again and injure or kill innocent motorists.
“We are being way too easy on repeat DUI offenders,” says former State Representative Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “Once you get past three or four DUIs, treatment does not work. The only thing then we can do is to prevent that person from being able to get on the roadways and the way to do that is send them to prison.”
Under the new law, a persons fourth DUI is a felony punishable with up to six years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines. Since each year about 1,800 people in Colorado are charged with their fourth or higher number DUI, this change marks a pivotal step in protecting Colorado motorists. For a second conviction, the new law mandates the use of an ignition interlock system – a breathalyzer device that requires the driver to be sober before operating a vehicle – for at least two years. A third conviction requires significant community corrections involvement.
Wondering how this new law affects your rights if a drunk driver injured you or a loved one in a DUI accident? An experienced DUI accident attorney can help make sense of the changing legal landscape and explain your rights to recover damages due to the negligence or reckless conduct of drunk drivers.