Lawmakers pondering tougher DWI penalties
SANTA FE – In June 2014, Leo Gurule and Carlos Archuleta were on their way to get ice for a family barbecue in Rio Arriba County when a drunken driver plowed into their sedan on U.S. 84, killing both of them.
Justin Romero, the man prosecutors accused of killing Gurule, 23, and Archuleta, 45, pleaded guilty to two third-degree felonies of vehicular homicide. But under a plea deal, he faces up to six years in prison when he is scheduled to be sentenced in March instead of the 12 years he could have faced, Romero's lawyer said.
Gurule's cousin, April Duarte, 32, who shortly after the men's death protested in front of the Roundhouse demanding tougher DWI laws, said in an interview last week that she wished prosecutors would punish Romero to the fullest extent of the law. At the same time, she wished that lawmakers would toughen DWI laws in the current legislative session in order to prevent another tragic accident.
"I don't think he's being punished to the full extent," Duarte said. "But at the same time, it's been taking so long that we just want it to be over with."
What Duarte is asking of prosecutors and her thoughts on the severity of the state's current DWI laws underscore the debate taking place now in the Legislature between Republicans calling for new, tougher penalties and Democrats who say the laws are strong enough but need better enforcement and programs to help prevent drunken driving.
Last week, the GOP-majority House passed three DWI-related bills, all backed by Gov. Susana Martinez, that would enhance sentencing for repeat DWI offenders and drunken drivers who kill someone.
The state had 113 drunken-driving related fatalities in 2015, the lowest number of fatalities in the past two decades, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Still, Republicans say their proposals would help save lives and toughen what they call New Mexico's weak DWI laws. Democrats say the state already has some of the toughest laws in the country and lawmakers should instead focus on funding social services that would help alcoholics get treatment before they reoffend.
Experts on the issue say consistent enforcement, with some improvement in the current laws, will help reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities. For those who rack up multiple DWI convictions, experts say, lawmakers should fund rehabilitation services because prison time alone won't cure alcoholics.
"Alcoholism is a disease, and I don't know that you can use threats to make somebody not fall victim to their disease," said Tom Starke, head of the Santa Fe County DWI Planning Council. "But you certainly do get them off the streets for some period of time when you put them in prison. And that does keep the public safer, but I don't know that that changes behavior once they get out."
Democrats and Republicans have also clashed on how tough New Mexico's laws are compared to other states. State Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez has called New Mexico's laws some of the toughest in the nation. Martinez, in her State of the State address at the start of the session, called it "cynical and factually incorrect to suggest that our drunk driving laws are tough, or anything like surrounding states'."
The truth, according to experts, is more fuzzy.
In a 2015 state-by-state comparison, Wallet Hub, a finance website that produces research reports, ranked New Mexico at No. 4 at preventing drunken driving but 49th in DWI penalties. In overall strictness on DWIs, New Mexico ranked 33, according to the study. Arizona was the most strict, Colorado was 17th and Texas was tied for 18th.
The study ranked all 50 states and Washington, D.C., based on various factors including minimum jail time, driver's license suspension, fines, mandatory period of an ignition interlock and how much a person needs to pay in fines.
The study found that harsher punishments are less likely to deter drunken driving. Adam Gershowitz, a law professor at William and Mary Law School in Williamsburg, Va., wrote in the study that greater enforcement such as DWI checkpoints stand a better chance at deterring drunken driving.
"Far more effective at deterring crime, such as DWI, is the certainty that the person will be caught and punished, even if the punishment is lighter," Gershowitz wrote.
Under House Bill 83, co-sponsored by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, Romero's two counts of homicide by vehicle would be second-degree felonies instead of a third-degree felonies. Her proposal would create a 12-year maximum sentence on each count, instead of the six-year maximum under the third-degree charge.
Barnes' bill would also add an additional year to a sentence for those convicted of four to seven drunken-driving offenses. An eighth DWI conviction would be considered a second-degree felony, which could mean a 12-year sentence. The bill passed the House 52-12 on Thursday.
It now heads to the Democrat-controlled Senate, where the fate of her proposal and the two others remains unclear as lawmakers scrutinize the bills not only for the penalties they would impose but also the cost to taxpayers of extra incarceration. If it becomes law, Barnes' bill would cost the state an estimated $3.1 million to $5.3 million each year, starting in 2018, according to a legislative fiscal impact report.
In a tight budget year, when revenue projections have flattened because of declining oil prices, one of the state's leading sources of tax revenue, lawmakers will have to decide if it's worth passing along such a bill to the governor.
"What's the price of human life?" Maestas told the during House Judiciary Committee two weeks ago, saying the cost to the state is worth it if it saves lives.
While Senate Democrats will question the cost, House Democrats questioned if the proposal will actually save lives.
"Raising the penalty may be justified in terms of punishment, but it doesn't do a darn thing for a general deterrent," said Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque. "Because someone doesn't say, 'Holy smoke, I don't want to drive drunk tonight because I might kill somebody, and I might get six years. Well, I'm only going to get six years, let's go.' "
" 'Oh shucks, did you hear about that new law that was passed? You'll get 12 years if you kill somebody. Oh wow, shucks, I better call a cab,' " he added. "Nobody is going to do that."
House Bill 81, sponsored by Rep. Paul Pacheco, R-Albuquerque, would add a fourth-degree felony to a drunken-driving charge when the offender is arrested while driving on a revoked or suspended license for a prior DWI offense. This bill also would create a fourth-degree felony for those who lend their vehicles to someone with a revoked or suspended license due to DWI. It passed the House by a 39-26 vote.
HB 82, sponsored by Rep. Jim Dines, R-Albuquerque, would add driving under the influence to the offenses covered by New Mexico's habitual offender laws, which could add years to prison sentences received by repeat DWI offenders. A DWI offense can be considered a felony after the fourth conviction. It passed by a 49-16 vote.
Linda Atkinson, executive director of New Mexico's nonprofit advocacy DWI Resource Center, said that in the early 1990s, she used to lobby for tougher DWI laws, such as the ones Republicans have introduced in the current legislative session. But, she said, New Mexico law enforcement officials need to consistently enforce DWI laws.
"I've always said that we already have tough laws in the books, but we don't have tough prosecutors," Atkinson said.
She said that once a drunken driver is caught, prosecutors should punish the person to the fullest extent of the law instead of dismissing the cases or offering plea deals. She said one way to save lives is through police conducting DWI saturation patrols, which help catch drunken drivers in the act before they cause a deadly vehicle crash.
Atkinson said there are drunken drivers who repeatedly violate DWI laws and rack up multiple convictions. For example, she pointed to the recent case of Tim Solano, 45, who police arrested on a seventh DWI charge recently after he was released from prison, where he was serving 10 years for a DWI collision that killed a 58-year-old woman who was riding a bicycle.
For such cases, she said, lawmakers need to fund rehabilitative programs that can treat a drunken driver's alcohol dependency.
"Once you go in as an addict, you come out an addict," she said. "I think we really need to change this whole conversation on DWI and start talking about the high addiction rate and alcoholism rate."
Aisha Smith, state executive director for the local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she supports any legislation that will reduce drunken driving. Smith said the current proposals are "a piece of a larger puzzle."
But, she said, the punitive measures in the bills aren't the only way to prevent drunken driving, even though the proposals could help keep the streets safer by keeping repeat drunken drivers in prison longer.
"Someone who is addicted to alcohol, their brain is impaired. They're probably drinking on a regular basis and are making very poor decisions," Smith said. "So, even with a harsher penalty, is it going to deter someone who is in that position from going out and drinking? Probably not."