DUI Fatalities Drop, Penalties Rise in Virginia

Last month we were reading one of the local Virginia news sources, PilotOnline.com, and came across an article discussing the drop in DUI fatalities over the past decade.

It was ten years ago that the city of Norfolk, Virginia suffered the tragic loss of a young life in a terrible drunk driving accident. The incident was so traumatic that it prompted locals, and ultimately state officials, to push for harsher punishment for DUI charges.

It was in May of 2003 that 16-year-old Landon Chambers was killed when a driver ran a red light and broadsided the car carrying Landon and his brother, who survived the crash. The at-fault driver was not only intoxicated but driving with a suspended license, which was suspended in connection with an earlier DUI incident charge. He also fled the scene of the fatal crash that killed the Lake Taylor High School honor roll student, but was later caught and charged. The furor over the boy’s killing brought lawmakers from both sides of the aisle together in the push for tougher legislation regarding DUI offenses, and in particular for those with repeat offenses.

Now, state officials say DUI fatalities in the Commonwealth of Virginia have dropped by 21 percent since 2005. The national trend has also seen DUI fatalities decline in recent years, as much as 23 percent from 2005 through 2012. Many have attributed the change to newer and harsher penalties. Though others say the reduction is also due largely to courts recognizing DUI as a problem that requires more than punishment. Many courts have finally begun to focus on intervention and treating the defendant’s alcohol or drug dependency.

In the Commonwealth of Virginia, however, stiff penalties are a very real risk for those arrested for DUI whether it’s a first time offense with no previous record or history of driving drunk, or it’s a repeat offense involving injuries or property damage. Among the newer regulations in the Commonwealth’s push to reduce its drunk driving rates are mandatory minimum jail terms for those who have multiple DUI offenses, lengthier terms for those with high blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rates, automatic suspension of a driver’s license for a first offense, and additional fines that are used to bolster the state’s “Trauma Center Fund.” The fund has amassed more than $440,000 since it was first established in 2004.

Those efforts also saw the threshold for being declared legally over the limit dropped in the last decade from 0.15 percent, to 0.1 percent, to today’s 0.08 percent. Part of the state’s “zero tolerance” policy on DUI calls for anyone under the age of 21 who has a BAC of 0.02 percent or more to lose their driving privileges for a year and pay a mandatory minimum fine of $500 or perform at least 50 hours of community service.

Several attorneys quoted in the article note that even a first time misdemeanor can feel like a felony in Virginia. Though the judges are quite fair, the new laws give them little discretion in what kind of punishment can be dealt. Mitigating factors have little to no sway. And many employers, including local military bases and government agencies, have grown far less tolerate of alcohol-related convictions. As a full service criminal defense firm in Virginia, we have also noted the change in the tone and the new approach that allows for little to no margin for error.

No one wants to suffer through the loss of another life, or to see people hurt or property destroyed. But we also would hope that law enforcement, the courts, and state law makers will keep in mind the driving force behind many DUI incidents. Alcoholism and drug addiction are illnesses that require medical intervention and treatment. In our rush to make Virginia safer for others on the road, let’s not forget the needs of our friends and neighbors who are struggling with their own demons and illness.

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