2006-07-13 / Front Page

Drunk drivers face stiff penalties for refusing test

By Sam Bari

Governor Donald L. Carcieri last week signed legislation that increases the penalties for those who refuse to submit to a Breathalyzer test when they are stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.

Although the DUI legislation includes driving under the influence of both alcohol and drugs, the Breathalyzer can only test for the consumption of alcohol.

The new law proposed last November by the governor and state Attorney General Patrick Lynch, increases penalties for Breathalyzer refusal. Carcieri said that the new law eliminated a major loophole in the state's drunk driving laws. The law went into effect July 5, as soon as the governor signed the bill.

"Last November, Attorney General Lynch and I announced that we were jointly submitting legislation that would help put an end to Rhode Island's shameful distinction as leading the nation in the percentage of DUI-refusal cases and the percentage of total highway deaths caused by drunken drivers," Carcieri said.

"The General Assembly heard our message and did the right thing in passing legislation that gets tough on those who refuse Breathalyzer tests," he added.

"For too long, we have allowed dangerous drivers to escape more serious penalties when they refuse to submit to Breathalyzer tests. They will no longer be able to exploit the system," the governor continued. "If you refuse a Breathalyzer test, you will face the consequences. In Rhode Island, we have zero tolerance for drunk drivers," he said.

Carcieri was joined at the billsigning ceremony by Attorney General Lynch, the sponsors of the legislation, state Senator Joseph Polisena of Johnston and Representative J. Patrick O'Neill of Pawtucket, and advocates for tougher drunk driving laws, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Before the new law took effect, the penalties for refusing a Breathalyzer test were significantly less than the penalties for DUI. Under the new law, the penalties for DUI refusal increase significantly.

First-time offenders will now have their driver's license suspended for six months to one year for Breathalyzer refusal. Under the old law, a driver's license was suspended from three months to six months. The fines, community service requirements, and mandatory participation in a drunken-driving course remain unchanged.

For second offenses committed within a five-year period, offenders will be charged with a misdemeanor, face a sentence of up to six months in prison, and have their driver's license suspended for one to two years. They must also pay a fine of $600 to $1,000, and perform 60 to 100 hours of community service. Under the old law, the offense was considered a violation. A prison sentence was not imposed, the fine was $300 to $500, and community service was not required. The suspension of a driver's license for one to two years and the requirements of alcohol and/or drug treatment remain unchanged.

For third-time offenders within a five-year period, suspects are charged with a misdemeanor, face a sentence of up to one year in prison, and have their driver's licenses suspended for two to five years. They must pay an $800 to $1,000 fine and perform a minimum of 100 hours of community service. Under the old law, the offense was considered a violation and not a misdemeanor, which eliminated a prison sentence. The fine was $400 to $500, and community service was not imposed. The requirements for alcohol and/or drug treatment remain unchanged.

"It ups the anti," said Sgt. Jack Dube, a 26-year veteran of the Jamestown Police Department. "There's a big difference between losing a license for three to six months, and losing it for a year for a first offense," he said.

"It'll make people think twice before they get behind the wheel after having a few," he added. "I definitely think it's a good

thing," said Police Lt. William Donovan. "Refusing to take the test used to mean no criminal offense on record for second and third offenders. Now, refusal is a misdemeanor, and the penalties are much stiffer. It's no longer a civil matter. DUI is a serious offense, and should be treated as such. The law moves us in the direction of the rest of the country."

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