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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

New drunken driving laws could lead to more trials | SummitDaily.com

New drunken driving laws could lead to more trials | SummitDaily.com

SUMMIT COUNTY — Statewide drunken driving laws that took effect this month extend minimum sentences for repeat offenders, but the local impact remains to be seen.

“What it's going to do in DUI cases is basically have the unintended consequence of more and more cases going to trial,” said JB Katz, an attorney in Breckenridge.

She said that a person facing more jail time is more likely to plea “not guilty.”

The new laws require second-time offenders to serve at least 10 days in jail and third-time offenders to serve at least two months.

Breckenridge attorney Sean McAllister said he doesn't expect the laws to have much effect locally.

“Frankly, it's not all that different from what Summit County has been doing in the past,” he said.

But he added that he recalls the case of a single mother who got her third DUI, and the judge gave her an ankle monitor with home detention because there was nobody else available to take care of the kids.

“No defense attorney ever likes mandatory jail,” McAllister said. “There may be some people like this woman.”

District Attorney Mark Hurlbert said the disparate sentencing in districts across the state made the new laws necessary.

“DUIs are a huge public safety problem. The person driving is essentially pointing a two-ton weapon at the victim,” he said. “People who drive drunk and have (multiple) drunk driving convictions should be put in jail.”

Katz said that while many people figure “a harsh law will have an incentive effect,” the mind of an alcoholic doesn't always calculate the potential outcome of drunken driving. She said the jail time could lead to less treatment to address illness.

“In the end, what still happens is people die,” she said. “If we don't start changing the thinking on how alcohol is viewed in society, what you're going to end up with is (more) dead people in car accidents.”

Lightened drug laws to follow stiffer DUI penalties

The state Legislature last session also approved a bill taking effect next month to reduce severity of drug-possession crimes.

Marijuana possession for people without medical marijuana licenses is to be a petty offense for up to 2 ounces. The existing law makes possession of more than 1 ounce a misdemeanor.

Possessing small amounts of marijuana concentrate will no longer be a felony, and possession of cocaine and other hard drug amounts will have a higher threshold before becoming a more highly penalized felony.

Hurlbert said he expects these laws to free up money that had been used on incarceration to instead provide treatment. The changes are to impact how the state funds the Department of Corrections.

“The person that was going to prison before is still going to go to prison,” he said.

Both Hurlbert and McAllister worked on a drug task force under the state subcommittee of Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

The task force helped to frame the new laws, which McAllister said are a “major reform” toward a system more focused on treatment than incarceration.

“Not everybody who uses drugs is addicted, so it's not a public safety problem,” he said. “We shouldn't be spending millions of dollars a year attacking every person who smokes a joint or does a drug that doesn't endanger anyone else.”

Other than methamphetamine, most drugs have a “pretty small” addiction rate, McAllister said.

Hurlbert aims to have a drug court in Summit County by this fall. He and other local people involved in criminal justice have attended training in Kansas City and are “on the right track” toward setting up the drug court, he said.

Katz, who serves on the drug court board, said the new drug laws reflect a “little more enlightened society.”

Hurlbert said meth hasn't been much of a problem locally, but that other drugs are rather popular.

“There is this party atmosphere up here, so we do see probably more drug cases per capita than some of the other jurisdictions. We have a lot of powder cocaine,” he said.

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