Repeat drunken drivers in New Mexico would face stiffer penalties if three bills passed by the House of Representatives on Thursday become law.
Gov. Susana Martinez called for all three bills last year, shortly after an Albuquerque crash in which three people in their 20s were killed when their car was struck by the driver of another car who allegedly ran a stop sign.
While there was little doubt that the Republican-controlled House would pass the measures, the real question is how they will do in the Democrat-controlled Senate.
- House Bill 81, sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, would add a fourth-degree felony to a drunken-driving charge when the offender is arrested while driving with a license that already had been revoked or suspended for a prior DWI offense. This bill also would create a fourth-degree felony for those who lend their vehicles to someone with a revoked or suspended license due to DWI. It passed by a 39-26 vote.
- HB 82, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, would add driving under the influence to the offenses covered by New Mexico’s habitual offender laws, which could add years to prison sentences received by repeat DWI offenders. A DWI offense can be considered a felony after the fourth conviction. It passed by a 49-16 vote.
- HB 83, sponsored by Reps. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, and Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, would add an additional year to a sentence for those convicted of four to seven drunken-driving offenses. An eighth DWI conviction would be considered a second-degree felony, which could mean a 12-year sentence. This bill would make the crimes of vehicular homicide or great bodily harm by a vehicle second-degree felonies. The bill passed 52-12.
In debating Pacheco’s bill, some Democrats said they supported harsher penalties for convicted drunken drivers who have revoked or suspended licenses but were concerned about charging others for allowing a drunken driver to use their vehicle.
Pacheco stressed several times that someone would have to know the person had a revoked or suspended license to be charged for lending a vehicle.
Rep. Antonio “Moe” Maestas, D-Albuquerque, in debating Dines’ bill, argued that drug court would be more effective in fighting the problem than prison sentences. He said statistics show those who successfully complete drug court are far less likely to get arrested for drunken driving than those who are imprisoned.
Dines said that while there is a place for drug courts, he would feel more comfortable if the convicted offenders were not driving on the streets. “There are certain ones who need to be put in jail because they have proved they are repeat offenders of the DWI laws,” he said.
Maestas pointed out that the state DWI interlock fund has more $3 million. He suggested the money be put to use to install interlocks in repeat offenders’ vehicles. Interlocks require drivers to blow into a tube and will not allow a vehicle to start if the driver is legally intoxicated.
In discussing HB 83, Maestas argued that doubling the prison time for vehicular homicide would do nothing to deter drunken driving. Maestas Barnes countered that the longer sentence would better serve justice.
Maestas Barnes spoke about the 2005 Santa Fe DWI case in which Tim Solano, a drunken driver with a history of offenses, killed Judith Scasserra-Cinciripini as she was riding a bike on Old Santa Fe Trail.
“That scared me,” Maestas Barnes said. She lived in Santa Fe at the time, she said, and her husband frequently ran in the same area.
Solano, who had a blood-alcohol level that was three times the legal limit for driving, received a 12-year prison sentence.
After he was released from prison last year, Solano was charged in December on another count of driving while intoxicated, his seventh DWI charge.