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NM tries to crack down on repeat drunk drivers

By   /   February 28, 2013  /   No Comments

Wrecked van after an accident in San Miguel County in New Mexico involving an alleged repeat drunk driver that resulted in a woman eight months pregnant to lose her unborn baby. Photo courtesy of Aileen Smith/CNN.

TRAGIC: Wrecked van after an accident in San Miguel County in New Mexico involving an alleged repeat drunk driver that resulted in a pregnant woman to lose her baby. Photo courtesy of Aileen Smith/CNN.

By Rob Nikolewski | New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE — It’s a staggering statistic: In 2011, nearly 60 percent of alcohol-related traffic deaths in New Mexico involved a driver with more than one arrest or conviction for drunken driving.

New Mexico has a tragic litany of repeat drunk drivers involved in horrific wrecks. With a little more than two weeks left in the 60-day session in the Roundhouse, a combination of bills toughening penalties unanimously passed the House and heads to the Senate.

“It’s time,” said Speaker of the House W. Ken Martinez, D-Grant. “We’re all tired of hearing of people driving with five, six, seven, eight convictions.”

The legislation — House Bills 349, 479 and 31 — establishes new standards  before people with drunken driving convictions can stop using ignition interlock devices and allows judges to require people subject to house arrest to use a breath analyzer in their homes to ensure they stay sober.

Republicans added House Bill 31 to the legislation that adds mandatory prison time to basic drunk driving sentences for offenders with previous felonies.

“The bills are really complementary of each other,” said Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, who sponsored the bill toughening prison sentences. “I think it’s comprehensive, it’s bipartisan and hopefully it will get through.”

“The increased penalties are mandatory, so there’s no plea-bargaining, there’s no way of getting around (the sentences),” said Liz Thomson, D-Albuquerque, who sponsored the bill dealing with interlock devices. “Between the three of them, I think it will make a major difference in the safety of our roads.”

A spokesman for Gov. Susana Martinez says the she will sign the three bills into law if they land on her desk as written.

“As a prosecutor, Gov. Martinez remembers having cases where people had 15, 16, 17 DWI’s or more,” said Enrique Knell.  “We have got to get tougher on DWI’s.  And if you’re a habitual offender, a criminal who commits various crimes, prosecutors should be able to use your felony DWI to enhance your sentence.”

The bill toughening sentencing is estimated to cost $944,750 in the next two fiscal years.

Under HB31, a fourth conviction would send a drunken driver to prison for at least six months and as many as 18 months, with increasing penalties — a seventh conviction would result in a minimum 10-year prison sentence.

The House bills come after a string of incidents involving repeat drunk drivers in New Mexico:

* In 2011, a man with 11 drunk driving arrests and at least eight convictions walked out of court because the Santa Fe District Attorney’s Office failed for more than five months to have a prosecutor enter an appearance in the case or turn over evidence to the defense lawyer.

* Last summer, Santa Fe police arrested a man on his ninth DWI charge after an officer late one night saw him driving a four-wheeled all-terrain vehicle off a busy street.

* In June, Aileen Smith, who was seven months pregnant, was driving with her husband through San Miguel County when she was involved in a wreck that sent her to Christus St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Santa Fe. Doctors performed an emergency C-section but were unable to save the baby. Authorities say the man involved in the accident has at least four drunk driving convictions on his record.

Smith and her husband met with Martinez in December to urge the state to toughen its drunk driving laws.

In an e-mail to New Mexico Watchdog last month, Smith wrote:

This. Is. Not. About. Republicans. Or Democrats. This is about the people of New Mexico. This is about parents burying their children because of drunk drivers. 

“I think (these bills) are going to show to our constituents at least the perception we’re trying to be tough on crime,” Lewis said. “We need it. Our constituents are telling us that. And I think we can sign it into law.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rob@nmwatchdog.org

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Since 2010, Rob Nikolewski has covered New Mexico politics and investigated fraud, waste and abuse in government. He also writes an opinion column in the Sunday editions of the Santa Fe New Mexican. Rob joined New Mexico Watchdog after 20 years in television as a sports anchor and reporter. He anchored at MSNBC, New York City, Boston, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Reno and Boise, winning three regional Emmy awards along the way. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in public administration from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a bachelor's degree in journalism from Trinity University in San Antonio.

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