As Kansas House and Senate negotiators agreed this week on a bill that would strengthen the state’s DUI penalties, Douglas County’s top prosecutor worried it would be too lenient on some repeat DUI offenders.
“The change gives chronic DUI offenders a break on their criminal history,” Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said. “Someone that would have faced significant penalties may now be facing the same sanctions as a first- or second-time offender.”
The bill, which requires all DUI offenders to use an ignition interlock device, passed both chambers with unanimous votes Thursday and awaits Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature.
Branson voiced concerns about a provision that makes July 1, 2001, the cutoff date instead of a person’s entire life when considering someone’s prior DUI history. It’s important in one sense because once a person is convicted of a third DUI, it is a felony.
Sen. Tim Owens, an Overland Park Republican and chairman of the state’s DUI Commission that has worked extensively on the bill, said the provision strikes a balance with punishing repeat offenders and an earlier period when a person’s DUI history went back only five years.
Owens said cases in the 1990s were tried and resolved differently because lawyers advised clients based on the fact their DUI history took into account only five years instead of a lifetime. Owens acknowledged having a 2001 cutoff date would affect some people who could avoid a felony conviction.
Proponents have mostly touted provisions of the DUI bill that require all people convicted of their first DUI to drive with an ignition interlock device for six months. This provision would sunset in four years without further legislative action to give state leaders a chance to assess how it is working.
The bill also includes a $250 increase in fines, increased funds for treatment of DUI offenders and a statewide central repository to track DUI offenses. Some representatives raised concerns that the bill removes a requirement that drivers permanently lose their licenses for five or more DUI convictions. But supporters say people drive drunk with or without a license.
Branson said he worried that someone with two convictions before 2001 who is convicted of another DUI could avoid the more extensive treatment as well.