The Virginia House of Delegates, after two hours of emotional debate, today passed a drunk driving bill that would be among the toughest in the nation. A similar bill has been passed by the Senate, and legislators said today's action makes it certain that the measure will become law.
The House measure, which has the strong support of Gov. Gerald L. Baliles and state Attorney General Mary Sue Terry, would mean that drivers with .10 percent alcohol in their blood -- typically about three one-ounce drinks for a small adult -- automatically would be considered intoxicated under Virginia law. The current level is .15 percent.
"When you get to .10, you're drunk, like it or not," declared Del. C. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke County), floor leader of the bill. It passed 76 to 23, but only after several crippling amendments narrowly failed in voice votes.
Several legislators -- all lawyers -- denounced even the current law as unconstitutional and said the stricter standard was being pushed by anti-drunk driving groups that had created national hysteria over the issue.
"Jack Ruby committed murder on national television and we all saw it, but Jack Ruby had more rights than Virginians" under its drunk driving law, shouted Del. V. Thomas Forehand Jr. (D-Chesapeake), referring to the killer of Lee Harvey Oswald, who was accused of assassinating President Kennedy.
Cranwell chided some of the opponents for their rough language and urged the House to reject "bleeding heart" stories. "There's nothing that says anybody has to take a drink and get behind the wheel," he said.
The .10 bill would set the same blood-alcohol content level as does District of Columbia law for proving a driver is drunk, but the penalties in Virginia would be more severe. In Maryland, the level of intoxication is set at .13 percent, but a person who has that much alcohol is not automatically considered to be guilty.
In Virginia, a first offense of drunk driving can carry a penalty of up to a year in jail, a fine of $1,000 and loss of license for six months. A second offense requires a minimum of 48 hours and a maximum of one year in jail, fines of up to $1,000 and loss of license for two to three years. A third conviction within 10 years includes fines up to $1,000, a year in jail and license revocation.
In the District, a City Council attorney said that a first offense includes fines up to $300 and 90 days in jail. In Maryland, convictions can bring sentences of a year in jail and $1,000 fine for a first offense, and two years in jail and $1,000 fines for subsequent offenses, according to legislative officials.
"We're extremely pleased. I'd like to say ecstatic," said Lynn Burgess, a copresident of the Richmond chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "We feel this legislation will save 100 to 200 lives each year."
In recent years, Virginia, as part of a national movement, has moved to toughen its drunk driving laws, eliminating a lesser offense of impaired driving, doubling some penalties and imposing mandatory counseling programs for those convicted under the law.
Cranwell said people with .10 alcohol levels are "eight times more likely to cause an accident" than drivers who have not been drinking.
"The simple fact is we lose the ability to focus," Cranwell said. "We're going to recognize what the medical community has been telling us for years and years. At .10 you have no business behind the wheel."
Del. I. Clinton Miller (R-Shenandoah), a lawyer and an opponent of the bill, failed in an attempt to lower the level of automatic conviction to .05 -- a move Cranwell later said was an effort to kill the bill. The House also rejected an amendment proposed by Forehand to eliminate automatic conviction provisions, which he called "draconian and ridiculous."
And it defeated an amendment offered by Del. T.V. (Ted) Morrison Jr. (D-Newport News) to require the state to produce a chart that would show how many drinks an adult could reasonably expect to consume and not be drunk. The guide could be used as a defense if the person were arrested.
"Drinking and driving is not a crime," Morrison said. "It's a crime to guess wrong" about the level of alcohol in your blood.
Morrison and Miller turned the debate into attacks on H. Benson Dendy III, an aide to Baliles and a longtime Democratic operative in Richmond who lobbied for the measure. Morrison, without mentioning Dendy by name, called him a "Munchkin," and Miller referred to him as the governor's "Richmond Retriever."
Cranwell attributed the comments to midsession strain and the emotional level of the debate, but at one point he said that "the rhetoric's a little sharp for me . . . . "
Some supporters of the bill "act as if they have the high, holy ground," said Del. Robert W. Ackerman (D-Fredericksburg). " . . . And if you disagree you're for slaughter on the highway." Ackerman said the current law, changed only 18 months ago, is working well.