Commentary: Utah’s new BAC law should show mercy for first-time offenders

In this image taken from a Facebook Live video, Sen. Jim Dabakis, D-Salt Lake City, is shown drinking liquor and swishing mouthwash before taking a test to monitor his blood-alcohol content. Dabakis and friends shared the video, filmed at a Salt Lake City bar, to urge Gov. Gary Herbert to veto a bill that would lower Utah’s DUI blood-alcohol limit.

Utah is getting hit with a different kind of New Year’s gift for 2019: stricter drinking laws. Utah is now the first and only state in the nation with a law banning individuals from driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.05 percent or above; every other state has a 0.08 percent limit.

And while the debate continues over whether this law will have any real impact on road safety, the lowered legal limit has less-publicized consequences that need to be addressed. Specifically, the new law will expand the pool of people who can be charged as criminals, hurting their ability to live normal lives.

A major problem with the 0.05 limit is that people often won’t know when they hit that point. As demonstrated by reporters from The Salt Lake Tribune and FOX 13, everyone experiences the 0.05 BAC limit differently. Robert Gehrke hit 0.05 after four gin and tonics, but showed no signs of impairment, according to the police who examined him as part of the study. Mike Rank drank eight beers with 3.2 percent alcohol content and never even hit 0.04 percent BAC, while Darcy Stapleford hit 0.053 percent after just two high point beers. Both still passed the field sobriety test.

This experiment may not surprise you, because everyone’s alcohol toleration is different depending on a variety of factors — and a BAC test doesn’t always accurately account for how alcohol impairs an individual. But with this new law in effect, that nuance doesn’t matter. Police will be able to arrest anyone who is driving with a 0.05 BAC. Period.

Because this lowered limit will encompass many more people than the old law did, this could mean a lot more people having their driver licenses suspended with thousands of dollars in fines, a criminal record and increased insurance rates.

After individuals are arrested for a DUI, their license suspension can begin just 30 days later, which is often long before they’ve had their court hearings. This can be detrimental to Utahns who have limited income, commute to a job or live in rural areas without good public transit options.

It can lead to immediately devastating consequences such as the individual losing employment due to lack of reliable transportation, which can affect the ability to pay rent and provide for a family. No one should operate a vehicle while impaired, but there should be some mercy in the law for first-time DUI offenders who didn’t cause harm or immediately endanger anyone when they were ticketed.

To soften the initial impact for these individuals, the state should allow a limited-use driver license after a short period of suspension has been served. The license would serve as a temporary permit for the court-ordered current mandatory suspension time — which could be anywhere from four to 18 months minimum. If the individual is caught drinking and driving again, the license would be revoked and criminal proceedings would proceed as usual.

This way, rather than limiting mobility for four months, the state can provide an opportunity at a second chance while still penalizing the individual — without significantly burdening lives over a case of poor judgment that did not harm anybody.

Creating more criminals in an era of overcriminalization is an unfortunate consequence of this new law’s good intentions. Candace Lightner, the founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, rightly said, “Focusing finite resources on casual drinkers instead of drug and alcohol abusers is a miscalculation with deadly consequences.” First-time offenders should be given a second chance.

Molly Davis | Libertas Institute

Molly Davis is a policy analyst at Libertas Institute.