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DUI arrests down in Utah, but offenders face tough laws when caught

Police in Utah arrest about 30 people every day for driving under the influence of alcohol. And when drunken drivers are pulled over, they face some of the toughest laws in the country.
Police in Utah arrest about 30 people every day for driving under the influence of alcohol. And when drunken drivers are pulled over, they face some of the toughest laws in the country.
Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Police in Utah arrested about 30 people every day for driving under the influence of alcohol last year.

If that seems like a lot, consider that in 2009 the average number of daily arrests reached nearly 43.

DUI arrests have dropped dramatically statewide the past few years. While the state's population continues to grow, the DUI arrest rate has declined nearly 36 percent since 2009, according the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice's 2014 DUI report to the Legislature.

But when drunken drivers are pulled over in Utah, they face some of the toughest laws in the country.

A WalletHub analysis released last week shows Utah has the seventh strictest DUI laws among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. WalletHub, a personal finance social network, rated the states based on minimum jail time and fines for first and second offenses, how long previous DUIs factor into penalties, license suspension and average insurance rate increases after a conviction.

In Utah, a first-time offender gets at least two days in jail, while that increases to 10 days on the second offense. A third offense is a felony.

"I think the laws are good but they're not perfect," said Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan.

Redd ran a bill this past year to ensure convicted drunk drivers prove they have access to a car equipped with an ignition interlock before the motor vehicle division reinstates their licenses. Utah requires the device on all DUI convictions.

The legislation easily passed the House but wasn't voted on in the Senate. Redd intends to bring it back next year.

"It's a small tweak in the law. It's not a big change, but I think it will help some," he said.

The federal government at one point restricted how the Utah Department of Transportation could spend $7 million in federal highway funds each year because the state's DUI laws weren't tough enough.

State lawmakers this past session changed the law to meet federal standards, including not allowing repeat offenders to plead to the lesser charge of impaired driving. The bill also requires judges to order drug and alcohol assessment and treatment for felony DUI convictions.

Melissa Larkin, chairwoman of the Utah chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Utah's DUI laws are good but could always be improved. She said she's hearing lately from people who wonder how law enforcement could crack down more on repeat offenders.

"I think there's a lot of victims who are frustrated with the fact they end up getting hit by a repeat offender. That's been kind of the heated topic the last several months just from the people I've seen that come to me," she said.

"We've tried to tighten up their consequences, but it's hard because some people just work around the system. They still get out there and drive and don't learn from that first offense."

Just over 19 percent of those arrested last year were second-time offenders, while 7 percent were on their third violation and 2 percent on their fourth violation, according to the state criminal justice commission report. Seventy percent are first-time offenders.

It's hard to pinpoint why DUI arrests have declined the past five years, said Utah Highway Patrol Maj. Mike Rapich. He listed increased traffic on the state's roads, stretching resources and more calls for service as possible contributing factors. He also said it's time-consuming for troopers to put together video data for prosecutors.

So far this year, though, arrests are up 10 percent over last year, he said.

Rapich said the UHP constantly analyzes arrest and crash data to figure out when and where deploy its troopers, who spend about 90 percent of their time on traffic enforcement. Generally, most arrests are made in the late night and early morning hours, he said.

UHP section offices are tasked to come up with DUI enforcement initiatives during what the agency calls the "100 deadliest days of summer" between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Rapich said.

Larkin said it seems people are drinking and driving at times other than evenings and weekends when police aren't looking for violators as much.

"Theses crimes are happening during the day, in the morning, during weekdays," she said. "There a lot of people who are drinking at those times where our thoughts are not really focused on pulling over those DUI drivers."

Redd said he doesn't think law enforcement has changed its approach to impaired driving, but the state has done a lot of public education on the issue the past decade.

"Maybe some of that is paying off now," he said.

Email: romboy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: dennisromboy; DNewsCrimeTeam