Law aims to keep drunken drivers off the road by taking their cars

Cracking Down » One-third of DUIs are repeat offenders
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Throughout intense liquor reform negotiations earlier this year, a group of Republican lawmakers, most notably Senate President Michael Waddoups, had one crucial priority: Crack down on drunken driving.

So, while Utah's bars this year will see private clubs done away with, and restaurants will see the Zion Curtain preventing them from serving drinks across the bar torn down, drunken drivers in the state may have a rude awakening.

"We're loosening up our alcohol availability somewhat," said Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who pushed aggressively for tougher DUI penalties and whose wife was seriously injured by a drunken driver. "At the same time, we felt like we need to send a message that we really don't want to see more drunk driving."

A new law, which takes effect on Tuesday, takes a simple approach to keeping repeat offenders off the road: Take away their cars. Utah will join 26 other states that already have some sort of vehicle forfeiture laws on the books, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

"One death because of DUI is too many and we just need to reinforce the seriousness of this problem," said Rep. Chris Herrod, R-Provo, who sponsored the legislation. "This bill is just a way to go after the repeat offenders."

Utah has the lowest rate of DUI fatalities in the nation, with 67 fatalities in 2007. Drunken driving accidents account for 22 percent of all highway deaths, nearly half of the national average.

Still, a third of the more than 14,000 DUI arrests in 2008 were repeat offenders, with six individuals being arrested 10 times or more over the previous decade, according to figures from the Utah Department of Public Safety.

It's those repeat offenders that Herrod's law seeks to target.

Once in effect, it is estimated that about 10 cars a month will be eligible for forfeiture, although prosecutors will likely only seek to confiscate about half of those, because many of the cars simply won't be worth the effort, said Rick Schwermer, assistant state court administrator.

But it will likely be months, if not a year or more, before any Utah drunken driver loses his car under the law.

The bill is not retroactive, so drunken drivers would have to be convicted of felonies after May 12, have their licenses suspended, then be arrested and convicted of felony drunken driving again on the suspended license in order to lose their vehicles.

Originally, the bill would have applied to past felony convictions, but that would have cost money in the coming year -- for prosecutors to go through the civil process of having the courts confiscate the vehicle -- and the economic downturn meant the Legislature wasn't funding many new programs.

Once a vehicle is confiscated, it can be auctioned off with the revenue going to the Commission of Criminal and Juvenile Justice which will use the money to award grants to local law enforcement agencies.

There are provisions in Utah's forfeiture law that protect a lien-holder if the driver is making payments on the car or an actual owner of a car who loaned it to the drunken driver, and a hardship provision that lets families ask a judge to return the car if it is the family's only mode of transportation.

The forfeiture law is one of a package of new laws aimed at getting tough on alcohol abuse that were part of a trade-off for liberalizing the state's private clubs and restaurant laws.

Several other laws, aimed at targeting drunken drivers and underage drinkers also were approved by the Legislature:

» Underage individuals caught sneaking into bars using a fake identification would lose their driver licenses for a year on the first offense with penalties escalating to jail time and a three-year suspension for repeat offenders. The bill also would make the youths or their parents liable for up to half of any penalty assessed against the bar for having underage drinkers.

» Those under 21 years of age would have to complete a substance abuse program to have their licenses restored.

» A much broader bill, that increases license suspensions from 90 days to 120 days, for a first offense and one year to two years on subsequent offenses, will take effect July 1. It also expands the use of interlock devices, which require a breath test to start a vehicle, and could suspend a license of an underage driver until he or she is 21 years old.

North Carolina has had a forfeiture law on the books since the mid-1990s and seized, on average, 79 cars a week in 2008. Many of those cars were released to innocent owners, but 1,826 were auctioned off. Derek Graham, a spokesman for the school system, says "it is not at all a big moneymaker for the schools."

"It turns out that a lot of vehicles driven by two-time DWI offenders are not big sellers. More junkers than gems, actually," said Graham. In fact, the schools were losing money impounding and selling the cars until they contracted with a company to manage the program.

"The program is a pain administratively, but there is no question that it has gotten some cars off the road that are potential weapons when driven under the influence," Graham said.

Studies of the forfeiture laws in Oregon, California and Ohio have all reported significant decreases in the recidivism rates for those who have had their vehicles confiscated.

On Tuesday, 319 new laws passed during the last legislative session will take effect. Some of those bills include:

HB14 -- Material Harmful to Minors Amendments -- Reduces the penalty for minors that exchange pornographic images from a felony to a Class A misdemeanor.

HB17 -- Expedited Partner Therapy Treatment -- Allows doctors to prescribe antibiotics to the partner of a patient who has a sexually transmitted disease.

HB51 -- Exemption for Alcoholic Beverage Manufacturing License -- Legalizes the home brewing of beer.

HB90 -- Abortion Law Amendments -- Defines fetal viability and prohibits abortion after the point of viability.

HB100 -- Tracking and Reimbursement of Individual Prisoner Costs -- Requires inmates to pay a portion of their health care and educational services.

HB290 -- Prohibition of Wireless Communication Device Use in Motor Vehicles -- Outlaws text messaging while driving.

SB78 -- Protection of Constitutionally Guaranteed Activities in Private Venues -- Prevents businesses from prohibiting gun owners from storing their weapons in a vehicle in the parking lot.

SB187 -- Alcohol Amendments -- Does away with the "Zion Curtain," the barrier that prevents restaurants from serving a drink over the bar.

SB228 -- Prohibition on Internet or Mail-Order Sales of Tobacco Products -- Makes it unlawful to order tobacco products by mail or online.