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House passes two DWI bills

Posted March 9, 2015 10:43 p.m. EDT
Updated March 10, 2015 5:36 a.m. EDT

— House lawmakers made short work Monday night of two bills strengthening penalties against repeat impaired drivers.

House Bill 31 and House Bill 32, both sponsored by Rep. Darren Jackson, D-Wake, passed with overwhelming support.

"We have a real problem with chronic DWI in this state," Jackson told fellow House members. "It was brought home this weekend when we had another DWI fatality in Wake County."

House Bill 31 changes the license condition rules for first-time driving while impaired offenders. Under current law, those without a court-required interlock system – they are generally imposed for bodily injury accidents or very high blood-alcohol limits – who get their license back after a year are allowed to drive for the next three years with a blood-alcohol content of up to 0.04, which is half the level at which drivers are considered impaired under North Carolina law. The bill would make that zero alcohol for the restricted period.

"I think that's a bad public policy," Jackson said of the current law. "I think a better way to address the issue is to tell people, 'You made a mistake. We understand that. Here's your license back...just don't drive after drinking.'"

Some lawmakers expressed concern that the bill would change the rules for drivers with ignition Breathalyzer cut-off switches, which are typically set to 0.02 percent because certain medications or foods can in some cases register a false low reading. But Jackson said the bill would not affect those cases.

The measure passed 110-4.

House Bill 32 would change the definition of a felony habitual DWI offender. Under current law, a drunk driver must earn four convictions within 10 years to be subject to felony habitual offender prosecution. The bill would subject a drunk driver to such charges on his or her third offense, with no time limit.

In 2013, Jackson said, 33 percent of all fatal accidents in North Carolina involved an impaired driver.

Jackson rattled off a list of other crimes that are felonies under state law on the first or second offense, from writing bad checks to possessing a slot machine.

"If you walk out of the chamber today and someone slaps you, that's a felony," he said. "What does it say to people that you have to have four offenses of driving on our roads while impaired, possibly risking their lives and our lives, and we wait till that point to make it a felony?"

The bill also does away with the 10-year time limit for DWI history. Jackson and other supporters said the time limit had allowed some habitual drunk drivers to escape felony prosecution due to the timing of their past convictions.

House Bill 32 passed 112-2.

The pair of bills now moves to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. House members overwhelmingly passed nearly identical legislation in the 2013 session, but Senate leaders declined to take it up.