Gov. Herbert says new toughest-in-nation DUI law will stand without major changes

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert talks with the media during his press availability at the State capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday Feb. 15, 2018.

After conferring with legislative leaders, Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday that he sees no chance that lawmakers will repeal or delay Utah’s new toughest-in-the-nation drunken driving bill before it takes effect on Dec. 30.

“I don’t think there’s going to be any kind of effort to repeal. I don’t think there’s going to be any effort to delay the implementation,” at least none he believes will pass, Herbert told reporters.

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill to drop the blood alcohol content where a driver is presumed to be drunk from .08 to .05. Herbert signed it reluctantly, saying he hoped for tweaks before it takes effect later this year — perhaps even creating a lower tier of penalties for those found to be between .05 and .08.

He now says he sees no move for a two-tiered penalty system.

“I heard from the Legislature this morning that they’ve done some testing” with the Department of Alcoholic Beverages and others “to see how people will react when they get their alcohol level to .05, and the consensus seemed to be that you are impaired at .05,” Herbert said. Senate leaders agreed with his assessment.

“I think this has been studied for the last year. Most people are coming back with the idea that reducing to .05 is not a bad idea,” Herbert said. Most countries besides America use the .05 level or even lower.

That’s disappointing news for those in Utah’s hospitality and tourism industries, who were hoping the Legislature would tweak the law to included lighter penalties for those arrested between .05 and .08 BAC.

“We need to make some improvements [in the law] so they are not classified as a drunk driver,” said Melva Sine, executive director of the Utah Restaurant Association.

She pointed to DUI laws in Colorado and New York which offer “tiered penalties.” Drivers at the lower BAC level typically receive a citation similar to a speeding ticket, she said.

A recent Salt Lake Tribune-Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found a slim majority of voters — 53 percent — supported the law. Active Mormons backed the law while Catholics, Protestants, inactive Mormons and Utahns with no religious preference overwhelmingly opposed it.

Utah’s legislators, almost 90 percent of whom are LDS, have repeatedly said the tough DUI law is about highway safety — not the Mormon teaching of abstinence from alcohol.

Last week lawmakers killed in its first public hearing a measure — supported by highway safety groups and voters — that would ban driving while using hand-held cellphones.

The governor added the DUI law is not meant to harass drinkers, and takes aim only at driving that is actually and visibly impaired.

“If you are weaving back and forth on the road, a policeman will pull you over. They will then do a field sobriety test.” Only if people fail will they then have a test for their blood alcohol content, he said.

“That’s the mandate to law enforcement. You see someone driving impaired, you pull them over,” the governor added. “We’re not saying people can’t drink. You can certainly access a drink, and you can drink until your eyes bug out if you want. We’re just saying don’t drive and drink.”

Herbert discounted arguments by the Utah travel industry that the law might scare away visitors.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Gov. Gary Herbert talks with the media during his press availability at the State capitol in Salt Lake City Thursday Feb. 15, 2018.

“The good news for them is that in spite of outside interests trying to keep people away” with scary ads about the new law, “our tourism and travel continues to grow and accelerate at double digits. We’ll have more people this past year that came to visit Utah than we had the previous year, which was a record itself,” he said.

The governor said discussions with lawmakers show that some minor changes in the law are expected.

For example, the current bill would ban novice drivers from having any alcohol at all — but that could affect older adults from other countries who obtain their first license here. Herbert expects that to change to affect only younger teenage novice drivers.

He also expects a possible change in the new law’s definitions that affect gun laws, and would deem someone with a gun as drunk at .05. “I think we punish people for what they do, not what they’ve got in their pocket,” he said.

About other pending legislation, Herbert said he is working to change HB205, a House-passed bill that seeks to ban abortions of fetuses only because they have Down Syndrome. He said that with the bill, as drafted, attorneys warn that it is unconstitutional.

“That should cause concern,” he said. “I’m pro-life, so I’m kind of anti Roe v. Wade. But I’m concerned about making sure that we follow laws that are constitutional.”

So he said he is working with lawmakers to “see if we can find anyplace where it’s constitutional…. Maybe there’s a way. We’ll see.”

Herbert gave limited support to medical marijuana — but he wants it prescribed by a doctor and dispensed by pharmacists.

Still, he said, “There probably needs to be a way for the state to authorize the growing of marijuana and its use. There probably ought to be a state involvement in how you dispense it.”

The Legislature is considering bills to allow terminally ill patients to use medical marijuana, which would be grown under state oversight. A ballot initiative seeks much broader legalization of medical marijuana.

Herbert declined to predict how the initiative may fare, but said, “There seems to be support for the medicinal use based on good science and good data. That’s what we should be supporting.”