Experts say lighter penalties just don't work for Utah's tough new DUI law

After considering but dismissing potential amendments for being too similar to lesser charge of “impaired driving,” advisory council vote “is basically saying we support 0.05.”

Penalties For First-time DUI arrests

The Utah Substance Use Advisory Council discussed — but did not adopt — adding a third level of penalties for those arrested for drunken driving under Utah’s strict new 0.05 blood alcohol content law. However, the proposal is available if Utah lawmakers want to create a tiered system.

Per se DUI (0.08%) 41-6a-502 Driving w/BAC above 0.05% 41-6a-502.4 Impaired Driving 41-6a-502.5
Classification Class B Misdemeanor Class B Misdemeanor Class B Misdemeanor
Jail time or compensatory service time Mandatory 48 hours None None
Fines/Surcharges Min. $700 fine & surcharge of 90% of fine Min. $700 fine & surcharge of $630 No minimum fine
Screening, Assessment Treatment, etc. Mandatory Mandatory Mandatory
Interlock Restricted Driver 18 months 12 months None
Alcohol Restricted Driver 24 months 24 months 24 months
Driver License Action 120 suspension (criminal and civil) 120 day suspension (civil DLD action). May be reinstated after 90 days. 120 day suspension (civil DLD action). May be reinstated after 60 days.

Source: Utah Substance Use Advisory Council

Earlier this year, the Utah Substance Use Advisory Council, was asked to investigate a tiered system of penalties for Utahns arrested for drunken driving under the state’s stricter 0.05 threshold.

But, after months of study, the group — made up of legal experts, law enforcement and alcohol policy officials — said creating lighter penalties for those arrested between 0.05 and the current 0.08, would only weaken law enforcement and prosecution efforts.

On Tuesday, the council voted unanimously — with two abstentions — to support Utah’s 0.05 BAC law as it is currently written. The lower limit isn’t scheduled to take effect until Dec. 30, 2018.

“I‘ve tried to follow through on each of these models, but I’m not crazy about any of them” said Salt Lake City prosecutor Paul Boyden, who led the DUI committee’s research.

He did come up with a set of possible changes, which he dubbed “Do No Harm Amendments,” but those are “fairly complicated” and would require changes to nearly two dozen sections of code, he said.

Proposed amendments for first time offenders could include:

• No mandatory jail time; compared to the 48 hours at 0.08.

• 12 months as an interlock restricted driver, compared to 18 months at 0.08.

• 120-day suspension with possible reinstatement after 90 days. Under 0.08, suspension is 120 days with no possibility of early reinstatement.

Boyden said the proposed penalties aren’t much different than the lesser charge of “impaired driving,” which most first DUI offenders currently negotiate after an arrest.

While the council didn’t adopt them, the “Do No Harm Amendments” are available as a starting point if lawmakers do want to make changes, said Carlene Walker, the DUI’s committee chairwoman.

“If we have to compromise, we will do it; but this is basically saying we support 0.05,” Walker said. “The bottom line is, we believe in what we already have.”

When Gov. Gary Herbert signed the bill creating the strictest DUI threshold in the country, he acknowledged there might be unintended effects on insurance rates or other matters. He agreed to examine those and consider lighter punishments — similar to what is done in Colorado — for DUIs between 0.05 and 0.07 blood alcohol content.

Utah’s restaurant, hospitality and ski industries have opposed the law, saying it punishes responsible drinkers and perpetuates the Mormon-dominated state’s reputation as unfriendly to those who drink alcohol.

However, proponents of the 0.05 limit, including the National Transportation Safety Board, say people become impaired with a first drink.

Art Brown, president of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving who represents victims on the council’s DUI committee, believes keeping the law and penalties intact will save lives.

“With 0.05, people will live that otherwise would die,” he told the council. “If we walk away from what is written now, it will diminish the effectiveness and won’t get the impaired driver off the road.”

A new Salt Lake Tribune poll found that a small majority supports the new tough DUI law.