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Op-ed: Lower alcohol limit means more people of color will be improperly stopped

Published March 19, 2017 1:45 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

In many post-legislative discussions, Rep. Norm Thurston's HB155, which would lower the state's legal limit for blood alcohol content in drivers, gets lumped together with other alcohol-related legislation. You know, those laws that set our state apart from the rest of the country when it comes to how we deal with commercially-available alcohol.

The private clubs. The Zion Curtain. The whole "you can't order drinks until you order food" thing. And now we are the only state in the union where the blood alcohol content threshold for officially "driving under the influence" (DUI) is .05.

But HB155 should not be shrugged off as just other "quirky" Utah approaches to alcohol. The very real ramifications of this bill go beyond making Utah stand out as a little different — and they are serious enough to concern the ACLU of Utah.

Alcohol policy, per se, is not necessarily in our wheelhouse. But racial injustice and mass incarceration certainly are. And HB155 has the potential to implicate both.

Up at the Capitol during the session, there was plenty of grousing and joking about the new proposal among those on the Hill who imbibe — including your ACLU of Utah lobbyists!

But in reality, most of those who work at the statehouse are in very little danger of being pulled over and breathalyzed at the new low limit.

Because here's the reality: The people who are most likely to be pulled over for minor driving infractions that could be interpreted as the result of low-level intoxication — crossing into another lane, forgetting to signal, rolling through a stop sign — are people who are not white. And the vast majority of state legislators, Capitol Hill staff and lobbyists are very much white.

The ACLU and other organizations have shown, time after time, through multiple lawsuits, that black and brown drivers are much more likely to be pulled over by law enforcement than white drivers. This is not necessarily the result of intentional discrimination on the part of law enforcement. Rather, poorly informed training, and a historic focus on people of color for the purposes of drug law enforcement, have contributed to implicit bias that is extremely difficult to counter.

We fear that this new law, if it is signed by the governor and goes into effect at the end of 2018, won't only result in more stops, more arrests, more criminal charges, more time behind bars and more collateral consequences flowing from convictions — including the loss of one's driver's license.

We are certainly concerned about these consequences. But we're specifically concerned that this law will not have proportional impacts across all communities. It is possible that white drivers will continue to drive at or above the new legal limit without ramifications, while non-white drivers will experience the brunt of the negative impacts associated with this unnecessary law.

The public safety benefits we reap from lowering the level of impairment to 0.05 percent are nowhere near as dramatic, proportionally, as what we accomplished by lowering the legal limit to 0.08. (It is telling that Mothers Against Drunk Driving and local law enforcement were lukewarm on the bill.)

At the same time, the unintended negative consequences of this legislation's implementation would fall much more heavily on communities of color in Utah. Not because people of color commit more driving infractions, but simply because they are more likely to be pulled over.

We encourage Gov. Gary Herbert to think seriously about the potential impacts of this legislation and to consider using his veto power to send it back to the drawing board. HB155 has an implementation date of December 2018. Why not veto this legislation, and spend the intervening two years discussing how this law might impact vulnerable communities?

People of color throughout Utah, immigrants and refugees in particular, already feel uniquely targeted and fearful right now. We should not add to their experience of persecution through likely disproportionate enforcement of laws that don't produce any measurable public safety benefit in our communities.

Anna Thomas is the strategic communications manager of the ACLU of Utah.






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