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Utah may have some of the toughest drunken driving laws in the nation. But Sen. Winn Richards, D-Ogden, says it is time to make them even tougher. It's time to make driving under the influence a felony offense for repeat offenders.

"It is just as hazardous for someone driving under the influence of alcohol as if someone were to take a gun and shoot someone," Richards said. "And it is therefore time to make the criminal penalty for drunken driving the same as for aggravated assault."Driving under the influence is a form of criminal activity, and people have to assume responsibility for their actions."

According to a pre-filed bill, to be heard when the Legislature meets in January, a third drunken driving conviction within a 10-year period would be a third-degree felony carrying a fine of no less than $1,000 and a mandatory jail sentence of 720 consecutive hours.

"I think people are not paying attention to the seriousness of the offense, and we need to get their attention. This would certainly do that," Richards said.

Richards, who drafted the bill at the suggestion of the Weber County attorney, said highway patrol officers are frustrated at arresting and rearresting the same people over and over. Officers tell of incidents where offenders with 19 DUI arrests are still driving the streets and of offenders who are arrested for drunken driving twice in the same night.

By making a third DUI conviction a felony, it would force offenders to come face to face with the reality of prison time, as well as force judges to treat drunken driving as the serious offense it is, Richards said.

"The thing we want least is to put people in prison," he said. "We want people to stop driving drunk. But if they are going to drive drunk, then this law should get their attention."

Currently, judges often require repeat offenders to serve their sentences on weekends, but Richards' bill would require the time be served without interruption.

The bill also states that the court may, as an alternative to jail, allow the person to work in a community work program for not less than 240 hours, but only if the court enters in writing the reason why the defendant should not serve jail time.

According to the bill, "Alcohol treatment, including inpatient treatment, is not a reason for allowing the defendant to do community service in lieu of the jail sentence, or for allowing the defendant to serve less than the minimum of 720 hours if he is required to serve time in jail."

The bill also mandates that those convicted a third time for drunken driving undergo mandatory alcohol rehabilitation in addition to the jail sentence.

The bill is patterned after existing laws for petty theft and shoplifting. Third convictions for petty theft are also third-degree felonies.

"Here we have something that involves a serious threat to life and property. Yet it is allowed to go on and on," Richards said. "Third conviction should be treated in the same category as if you shoot at someone."

A study on the number of repeat offenders still driving Utah highways should be completed by the time the Legislature convenes in January, and Richards hopes that will provide the evidence he needs to push the bill through.