DUI Laws May Jail Thousands in Va.
Some Local Officials Worry About Costs and Crowding
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2004; Page B01
Virginia's new, tougher drunken driving laws are likely to put thousands more drivers behind bars each year and require them to install expensive breathalyzer equipment in their cars, lawmakers said.
Drivers charged with having a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or higher will continue to be charged with drunken driving. But those who reach the threshold of 0.15 -- the new level at which tougher laws kick in -- will face at least five days of jail and be required to use a dashboard breathalyzer that prevents them from starting their cars if they are legally drunk.
Offenders pay more than $450 to rent the instrument, called an ignition interlock, for six months.
Before July 1, when 25 drunken driving laws took effect in Virginia, the only first-time offenders who faced mandatory jail time were those with a blood alcohol level of 0.2 or more, and only some repeat offenders were required to put ignition interlocks in their cars.
Virginia has some of the toughest drunken driving laws in the nation.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, about half the states require jail time for all DUI convictions involving high blood alcohol levels. Only four states, including Virginia, require ignition interlocks for such offenders. Neither Maryland nor the District have laws as tough.
Lawmakers estimate that as many as 8,000 additional offenders annually will face those penalties in Virginia, said Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville), who sponsored the law lowering the threshold. That would be an increase of more than 300 percent statewide, according to estimates.
Figures from at least one local jurisdiction illustrate the potential increase. In one week in September, for example, 91 people were arrested in Fairfax County for drunken driving, according to county records. Twenty-six of those drivers had a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or more -- nearly three times the number above 0.2.
Proponents say the new laws provide a necessary crackdown on severely impaired drivers, who, statistics show, are involved in nearly 60 percent of alcohol-related traffic deaths.
"These are people that, whether they do it on purpose or not, are doing it at everyone else's risk," Bell said.
The new statutes also have some sheriffs wondering how they will house what could be an onslaught of inmates in already crowded facilities.
At the Fairfax County jail, a staff shortage has meant that an addition completed in 1999 has yet to open, and more than 1,200 inmates are crammed into space meant for fewer than 900, said Capt. Karen McClellan, spokeswoman for the county sheriff's department.
"You're not going to hear us complaining about locking up bad people," said John W. Jones, executive director of the Virginia Sheriffs' Association. "We just need the money to do it."
The new laws also could pose a challenge for the state's 24 Alcohol Safety Action Programs, or ASAPs, that convicted drunk drivers must attend, said Jody Douglas, executive director of the Fairfax County ASAP. Caseworkers at the programs arrange for the installation and removal of ignition interlocks.
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