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Utah lawmakers eye tougher penalties for ‘extreme’ DUIs

19 other states have similar laws, attorney says

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Utah Highway Patrol Troopers search a car after conducting a road side sobriety test in 2012.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A Utah legislative panel has endorsed a proposal to enhance penalties for repeat DUI offenders and those far above the blood alcohol limit.

The Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee voted Tuesday to advance the proposal being crafted by Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy.

“The idea is that those people are a significantly greater risk than someone who is closer to the drunken driving level,” said Ryan Robinson, a West Valley City prosecutor working with Eliason on the bill.

The bill targets “extreme” DUI offenders, which include drivers with a blood alcohol level of 0.16% or greater; those above 0.05% but with another controlled substance; and others behind the wheel with two or more unprescribed, controlled substances in their system, such as heroin and meth.

Robinson said research has shown that the more intoxicated drivers are, the more likely they are to cause a fatal crash.

The bill would up time in jail or home confinement with an ankle monitor that measures alcohol consumption for those offenders, depending on the severity of their impairment and the number of prior offenses.

It would also prohibit prosecutors from offering a plea bargain with reduced charges and creates a separate DUI offense for every every child involved in a DUI crash.

Nineteen other states have similar laws on the books, said Tyson Skeen, the traffic safety resource prosecutor with the Utah Prosecution Council.

The proposal prevents defendants from taking a plea in abeyance in the cases, which allows a case to be dismissed altogether if they complete probation successfully. It means an offender can face enhanced penalties in any future cases due to the previous convictions on their record.

The bill has the support of Utah’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter and the Salt Lake County Attorney’s Office.

Rep. Mark Strong, R-Bluffdale, was the lone member of the panel to vote no. He said he supports the bill but has concerns about whether the enhanced penalties will prove effective in deterring drunken driving.

Eliason said he’ll bring the bill before a House committee early in the 2021 Legislature.