Remarks critical of efforts to toughen penalties for drunk driving without strong local enforcement were incorrectedly attributed to State Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax) in yesterday's Washington Post. They were made by John Moulden of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Responding to an emotional lobbying campaign by the parents of drunken driving victims, the state Senate today approved a stringent new bill that sharply stiffens penalties and calls for mandatory jail sentences for repeat offenders.
But even as the new measure brought cheers from its citizen supporters throughout the state, some legislators expressed doubts--in public and private--about how effective it would be without significantly tougher enforcement by police and judges. The Senate's 37-2 vote also put the body at variance with the House, which is expected to approve a milder drunken driving bill Saturday.
"When parents come in and say, my child died as a result of drunk driving, my heart and your heart goes out to them," said Sen. Dudley J. Emmick, (D-Botetourt). "But if you're going to get tough, don't give them a big load of words that make them think you are, when you're not."
The bill is patterned after a recent California model law and stiffens existing law primarily by mandating penalties which have until now been left up to the discretion of prosecutors and judges. For example, Virginia law already allows drunken drivers to be given jail terms of up to six months and pay fines of $500.
But thousands of drunken drivers have been able to escape penalties by enrolling in court-approved and state-run alchohol education classes, called the Alcohol Safety Action Program (ASAP), in some cases as many as three or four times.
The new Senate bill, sponsored by Joe Canada (R-Virginia Beach), would mandate that anybody convicted of drunken driving for the first time would lose his driver's license for 90 days--with driving privileges restricted to commuting to work--even if they enter ASAP. Second offenders would face a mandatory three-day jail sentence, while three-time offenders would be receive a mandatory six-month jail term, a $1,000 fine and loss of their driver's licenses for three years.
"It's a giant step forward," said Lillian DeVanney, a Virginia Beach housewife who has been active in the Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) group that campaigned for the Senate bill. "There's nothing more impressive to the drunk driver than the clank of the jail-house door."
DeVenny, whose 21-year old daughter was killed by a drunken driver three years ago, has been a chief organizer of what some lawmakers say has been one of the most effective citizen lobbying campaigns to hit the capital in years.
Last December, she and another MADD member, Susan Midgett of Norfolk, met in the den of DeVenny's home and plotted their strategy. They organized chapters in other parts of the state, contacted the parents of drunken driving victims whom they read about in the newspapers and began bombarding legislators with phone calls and letters.
The effectiveness of the lobbying was underscored last week when scores of MADD mothers and members of an offshoot group called SADD (Students Against Drunk Drivers) told visibly moved lawmakers on a Senate committee a series of heart-wrenching stories about how their children and friends were killed or hurt by drunken drivers.
The group was so successful in garnering public support that even some lawmakers with strong reservations about the Canada bill stayed silent during today's debate and voted for it. Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan (D-Fairfax), for example, said he had agreed to vote for the Canada bill after being lobbied by the father of Susan Herzog, a teen-age girl in Fairfax killed by a drunken driver in January.
"I'm not so sure you can make a case between putting a law on the books and reducing the incidence of drunk driving on the highways," he said. "There's always a danger when you get a problem that is emotional like this, that government can be stampeded into action."
Gartlan's doubts are buttressed by federal officials who say no matter how tough the law judges and prosecutors faced with an overclogged court docket will still reduce charges through plea-bargaining rather than prosecute drunken drivers.
"Virtually every state that has tried mandatory jail sentences has found the effects almost exactly the opposite of what the legislature had in mind," Gartlan added. "You get an increase in jury trials, a decrease in guilty pleas, all the legal tricks are applied.
"We can talk about mandatory this and mandatory that, but unless you have Fairfax County out arresting drunk drivers and the prosecutors out prosecuting them, it won't make any difference, it's almost common-sensical."