TOPEKA — A committee overhauling Kansas' drunken driving laws considered a wide range of changes Monday for a system that has been decried as too complex and dysfunctional.
* Moving repeat drunken drivers into state-mandated treatment earlier — on the third offense instead of the fourth.
* Putting ignition interlock devices on vehicles for first-time drunken drivers.
* Creating a central records depository so law enforcement can know whether a driver has a prior conviction.
* Allowing offenses to "decay" after 10 years of a clean driving record.
The committee considered, but ultimately did not embrace, a proposal to change a third-time drunken driving offense from a felony to a misdemeanor. The panel kept the part of the proposal moving offenders into treatment earlier.
Chairman Sen. Tim Owens, R-Overland Park, cautioned that the commission plans three more meetings and the proposed legislation could change before lawmakers return to Topeka in January.
Several attorneys on the 12-member commission noted that, with drunken driving, the felony offense is somewhat misleading. Offenders often don't go to prison because of overcrowding, and prosecutors don't receive resources to handle the cases as they would other felonies.
"It is frustrating and dishonest for everyone involved," said Nicole Romine, Douglas County assistant district attorney.
Ultimately, Owens said, he wants the law to ensure that drivers are treated earlier and don't have a fourth offense.
Treatment, mandated by the state for four-time offenders, has prevented further offenses in many cases.
"Why do we have to wait for the fourth offense? Why do we have to change a third felony?" asked Mary Ann Khoury, president of DUI Victim Center of Kansas. "Why can't we start doing those things on the first and second DUI?"
Owens said it is cost-prohibitive to expand treatment to first- and second-time offenders, which was his initial preference.
Rep. Lance Kinzer, R-Olathe, said he thought a proposal to make a third offense a misdemeanor would not make it through the Legislature.
"If it is an integral part of this bill — if it doesn't make it through — it creates 10 other moving parts that don't work," he said.
Ultimately, the panel suggested leaving a third offense as a felony but putting third-time offenders into treatment.
Fixing broken system
The debate is part of a two-year effort to study and change the state's drunken driving laws.
Lawmakers created the commission shortly after the Kansas Substance Abuse Policy Board concluded that the state's DUI laws were so complex and dysfunctional that the system needed an overhaul.
The effort came six months after Claudia Mijares and her 4-year-old daughter, Gisele, were killed by a drunken driver while walking across the street to a Wichita school.
Gary Hammitt had four DUI convictions, but still had a valid driver's license. He pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder and was sentenced to nearly 40 years in prison.
The commission also tackled ignition interlock devices, a point of contention between the House and Senate during the last legislative session.
Lawmakers agreed then that second-time offenders would be required to have ignition interlock devices, instead of first-time offenders as some had wanted.
The changes in the last legislative session include suspending a driver's license for a year for those convicted of drunken driving a second time. After 45 days, they are able to drive to limited places, such as work or treatment, with an ignition interlock device on their car.
After the year is up, the drivers can drive anywhere, but have to keep the ignition interlock device on their car for another year.
An interlock device doesn't allow a car to start if the driver's blood alcohol level is half the legal limit or greater. The driver's levels also are randomly tested while the car is moving.
The devices cost $50 to $70 for installation and $65 to $75 a month in fees after that. Offenders are supposed to pay the cost.
The commission proposed that first-time drunken drivers face a 30-day suspension of driving privileges, then be required to use an interlock device for one year.
First-time offenders who had a blood alcohol level of 0.15 or higher, or refused a Breathalyzer test, would face a 45-day suspension of their license and two years of driving with an interlock device. The first year, they would be limited to driving to and from work, treatment, school or for emergencies.
Kinzer suggested adding an additional year of driving with an ignition interlock device to the current requirements and, after five drunken driving convictions, revoking a license.
'Decay' of convictions
The commission also proposes a system that would allow drunken driving convictions to "decay" from a record after 10 years.
If someone received a drunken driving conviction while in college, then had a clean record — no refusal of a Breathalyzer test, no diversion program or second conviction — their record would essentially be reset to zero for punishment purposes.
If they had another offense during that decade, the record would reset to the newest DUI offense.
The commission's next meeting will be Sept. 27. Owens said he hopes to have a final bill drafted by the last meeting scheduled for November.