Russell Hebets May 20, 2015

The Colorado state legislature recently passed a bill that is sitting on the governor’s desk waiting his signature. Following a few failed attempts to pass a similar law in recent years, this bill will up the stakes for habitual drunk drivers. Before this bill, Colorado was one of only five states that continued to charge repeat DUI offenders with a misdemeanor. It did not matter if the DUI was your first or your seventeenth. Being charged with a misdemeanor meant you could face, at most, a year in jail. A DUI was only charged as a felony when someone else was seriously hurt or killed by a drunk driver. If this bill is signed into law, you will be charged with a felony upon receiving your fourth DUI, regardless if anyone else was hurt or not. Now, four-time or more DUI offenders could face up to six years in prison.

Bill Had Widespread Support

There was much debate surrounding the passage of this bill and this measure found widespread support by both the government and the public. The proposed law had bipartisan backing in the legislature. In his State of the State address in January of this year, Governor Hickenlooper announced his support for the bill and made the passage of this type of bill one of his administration’s goals. Additionally, the proposed law found support in the families of victims of drunk driving accidents. Many of these individuals were at the legislature while this issue was being discussed, lobbying for its passage. Personal accounts of legislators who were themselves affected or knew someone affected by drunk driving were often cited during the floor debate on this bill. Supporters argued for its deterrent effect and stated that more severe punishments will help stop repeat DUI offenders from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated multiple times. Many supporters feel this bill will bring justice to repeat DUI offenders, and in Governor Hickenlooper’s State of the State address, he stated that he would work to pass “a felony DUI law that brings justice to those who repeatedly drink and drive.”

Bill Faced Fierce Opposition

While skeptical of the bill’s possible deterrent effect, opponents of the bill were largely concerned with the potential costs of incarceration for those convicted of a fourth DUI. It costs about $30,000 a year to keep one person in prison. If signed, this law will cost Colorado taxpayers more and more each year, rising from an estimated $4 million for next year to $8 million for the following year. A felony DUI bill has been proposed several times in the past and has failed because of these budgetary concerns. Additionally, opponents are concerned that making a fourth DUI punishable with prison time will deemphasize the importance of treatment and rehabilitation for habitual drunk drivers. They feel that rehabilitation is the solution, rather than punishment. However, a provision in the law specifically addresses this concern. If the court sentences a defendant to prison for a felony DUI, the court must weigh whether incarceration or treatment is the most suitable option, given the circumstances of the case. While similar measures have fallen to the opposition in the past, this bill cleared both the Colorado House of Representatives and the Senate. Given Governor Hickenlooper’s outspoken support, it is very likely this bill will soon be signed into law.

Will the Benefits Outweigh the Costs?

With this law, Colorado joins most of the nation in its approach to habitual drunk drivers. While the goal of this law is to have a positive impact by decreasing the number of drunk drivers on the road, we will wait and see if this law is worth its cost.