Virginia is set to begin enforcing the region’s toughest drunken-driving penalty, one that will require thousands of first-time DUI offenders — whether they were highly intoxicated or slightly over the limit — to install in their cars blood-alcohol testing devices that can lock the ignition.
The new law, which takes effect in July, will roughly quadruple the number of people required to use ignition interlock devices, as they are known, to more than 18,000, and offenders will have to pay a hefty fee — about $480 for a typical six-month installation.
The measure has sparked a contentious debate between groups battling drunken driving and those representing offenders about just how far the long and steady push to stiffen drunken-driving penalties should go in the state.
Such groups as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Washington Regional Alcohol Program say that Virginia’s 274 alcohol-related road deaths and more than 5,500 injuries in 2010 remained unacceptably high despite years of cracking down on drunken driving. Ignition interlock devices, they say, reduce repeat offenses.
But some public defenders and lawyers contend that the devices are too severe a penalty for offenders at the legal blood alcohol limit of 0.08, the court system will be burdened by more cases going to trial and lower-income drivers will be disproportionately affected by the fees.
Virginia’s General Assembly easily passed the ignition interlock bill this session, and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) signed it into law last month.
Virginia’s current law requires only repeat drunken-driving offenders or those convicted with a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or higher to have an ignition interlock device in their car.
The devices work like this: A driver must blow into a blood alcohol device linked to the car’s ignition. If the result is higher than the legal limit, the car will not start. The device also requires random “rolling retests” once the driver is on the road.
“When you still have over 29,000 people arrested for DUI, what we have out there isn’t working,” said Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Area Regional Alcohol Program. “This technology is proven effective and safe. It allows the offender to drive, earn a living and go to his or her son’s baseball game.”
Erickson pointed to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention analysis of 13 studies, which showed that ignition interlock devices reduced drunken-driving recidivism by a median of 67 percent. Some of the studies showed large declines for first-time offenders.
Alcohol played a role in 37 percent of driving deaths in Virginia, according to data from the state’s Department of Transportation.
Fairfax County Public Defender Todd Petit said the new law won’t help the drunken-driving problem and could make things worse.
“I think this is one of those bills you want to believe is good and will help everyone,” Petit said. “It’s going to unfairly impact clients who can’t afford interlock, as opposed to a more wealthy person who can pay for it and continue to drive to work. . . . There’s going to be a portion of the community who are going to choose to drive without licenses.”
When someone is convicted of a first-time DUI, the penalty is usually a fine of about $300, mandatory alcohol-education classes and suspension of driving privileges for a year. Judges often use their discretion to issue the person a license that allows driving only to essential places, such as to a job or to school.
Under the new law, drivers will not be able to drive on a restricted license without getting the ignition interlock device. The law does not have a provision for the state to reduce or waive the fee for those who cannot afford it, as it does for the alcohol-education program.
Del. Sal R. Iaquinto (R-Virginia Beach), who sponsored the bill, had a simple rejoinder for concerns about the costs of the interlock devices: “How much does a life cost?”
Paul McGlone, a defense attorney in Fairfax, said he thinks pumping thousands of new interlock installation requests into the system could cause delays, a point even one backer of the law said he is worried about.
“The implementation is going to be much more difficult than predicted,” said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). “People had to wait a long time for their interlocks when we first did this.”
Iaquinto and other supporters think such fears are overblown. There are now four interlock vendors in the state; when the program was launched, there was one. A provision in the new law allows those charged with a DUI to schedule an appointment with a vendor before their trial. And vendors said they are ready to handle the increased load.
Petit said the new law could overburden the system in a different way: More drunken-driving cases will go to trial, creating a greater workload for the state’s already taxed courts. “If you are automatically getting an interlock, then you have little incentive not to try the case,” Petit said.
Friday morning’s docket in Fairfax’s traffic court gave a sense of how DUI cases play out.
A Virginia Commonwealth University student pleaded guilty to DUI, possession of marijuana and driving with a suspended license after he was pulled over with a blood alcohol level of 0.18.
On the drunken-driving charge, the judge fined him $300, sentenced him to five days in jail and took away his driving privileges for a year. He was granted a restricted license and required to install an ignition interlock device in his car. The student asked to begin his jail sentence April 19, but the judge ordered him to begin his sentence immediately. A sheriff handcuffed him and led him out of the courtroom.
This year’s legislative session was not the first time the bill had been proposed. Supporters said relaxing some provisions — including one requiring the installation of ignition interlock devices on every car an offender owns and new research on the impact of the devices — helped sway votes.
“Blowing into a tube for six months, you will remember that,” Iaquinto said. “And you’re not likely to offend again.”