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Legal Review: Anti-Drunk Driving Advocates Concerned About Virginia Removing Mandatory Minimums

Virginia’s General Assembly proposed a bill, Senate Bill 1443, that would remove mandatory minimum sentences for all crimes excluding Class 1 felonies. The bill has sparked significant concerns from anti-drunk driving organizations.

Before the bill, there were a series of mandatory minimum sentences for certain blood alcohol content levels (BAC). For a BAC of 0.08 — twice the legal limit — the offender was required to be in jail for five days. Those with a BAC of 0.2 or higher had a mandatory minimum of 10 days in jail.

There were specific stipulations for repeat offenders as well. If someone got two convictions within a five-year span, they must serve a mandatory 20 days in jail. If those two convictions took place within 10 years, that sentence is reduced to 10 days.

Senate Bill 1443 would remove these mandatory minimums, allowing the judge or jury to decide the sentence for each specific situation. Several advocacy groups have spoken about their concerns about removing mandatory minimums for drunk driving cases. They are especially concerned about extreme cases involving repeat offenders or those with astronomical blood alcohol content called “super drunk” drivers. They argue that, without mandatory minimums, drunk driving offenders may be released with minimal penalties and return to their destructive behaviors.

Crime Classifications

What classifies as a Class 1 felony varies from state to state. In Virginia, Class 1 felonies include murder and sexual abuse of a child under 15 years old. Committing these crimes can result in life imprisonment, a fine of up to $100,000.

Senate Bill 1443 would specifically keep mandatory minimum sentences in place for these felonies. However, all other crime categories would lose their mandatory minimum sentencing, such as aggravated manslaughter and child pornography. In cases involving these crimes, it would be up to the judge or jury to decide the sentencing requirements for that particular case.

Why Anti-Drunk Driving Advocates are Concerned

There is a long list of anti-drunk driving advocacy groups opposing this bill. The Washington Regional Alcohol Program, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the American Automobile Association’s Virginia Branch, and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility banded together to write a letter to the General Assembly discussing their qualms with the current state of the bill.

Kurt Erikson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, explains their reservations by using the expression “throwing the baby out with the bathwater.” Essentially stating that Senate Bill 1443 is a good idea, but it should not apply to drunk driving cases.

There is some truth behind his statement. Two-thirds of drivers involved in fatal crashes had a BAC of 0.15 or higher, and on average, a Virginian dies in a car crash every 33 hours. These two statistics clearly show how drunk driving can be hazardous for Virginia’s citizenry.

However, there are some, including the Democratic State Senator John Edwards from Roanoke County, who authored the bill. He argues that judges overseeing these cases would still have the jurisdiction to impose harsh sentences. The bill would only remove mandatory minimums for a majority of drunk driving cases. His statements have done little to settle the worries of anti-drunk driving advocacy groups.

Where Are We Now

Against the concerns of several anti-drunk driving advocacy groups, Senate Bill 1443 passed with a 21-17 vote. However, many organizations are still fighting to decrease the number of people who die in DUI related car crashes.

Currently, Fairfax County has the most deaths in Virginia with an average of 19 DUI related fatalities each year between 2006 and 2010. Fairfax Criminal Lawyers are working with the Fairfax County Police Department in a campaign called Checkpoint Strikeforce in an attempt to decrease these numbers.

Even while making these attempts to decrease the number of DUI cases, advocacy groups are still concerned about what this could mean for future drunk driving cases. It has yet to be seen how removing mandatory minimums may affect the number and severity of drunk drivers on Virginia’s roadways.

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