Group pushes for strict new DWI laws

Ellen Pitt has spearheaded the effort across the region to curb DWIs. File photo Ellen Pitt has spearheaded the effort across the region to curb DWIs. File photo

Western North Carolina’s regional DWI taskforce has renewed its push to pass several new drunk-driving bills into law during next year’s long session in Raleigh. 

The bills were discussed at a meeting in May at the Waynesville Police Department headed up by WNC DWI Taskforce Director Ellen Pitt. A variety of stakeholders attended the meeting, including legislators, law enforcement, judicial candidates, prosecutors, experts and avid volunteers.

Pitt told The Smoky Mountain News that at that meeting, they made a few small changes to the proposed legislation but that the five bills are similar to ones proposed last year. While those bills were never heard, Pitt said she believes the support from law enforcement and the National Transportation Safety Board will be paramount, adding that law enforcement seemed to be particularly interested in one bill.

One bill would lower the legal blood alcohol content of a driver from .08 to .05. While the National Transportation Safety Board recommended this change for all states back in 2012, Utah is the only one so far to adopt the lowered standard.

In addition, right now, if a DWI is charged with a BAC of below .1, that is considered a mitigating factor, meaning it could lessen someone’s sentence. One bill would remove that mitigating factor altogether. 

While most of what was talked about involved an increased ability to arrest people for DWIs and further restrictions after they’re charged, one proposed change would make things easier for offenders whose drunk driving didn’t result in any injuries or death that complete DWI treatment court by reinstating their license and paying some of their fees. 

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“We know when people finish sobriety court it’s an uphill battle and they’re trying to start over,” Pitt said.

One bill would allow people who complete sobriety court and get their license back to receive a continuous alcohol monitoring (CAM) bracelet instead of an ignition interlock.

“We all decided and voted to say take off the interlock; they will wear a CAM bracelet for a period of time,” Pitt said. “We were going to give them the choice between interlock or CAM, but everyone knows the interlock is not feasible in this group. They can install a $500 interlock on a vehicle and it breaks down the next day, all while they’re trying to get back up on their feet.”

Another change involves what is done with the license restoration fees. Before, while the lion’s share would go to the state’s general fund; new legislation would make it to where the majority goes to fund statewide chemical testing and training programs and only 25% would go to the general fund.

“When you put money into the general fund, you don’t know where it goes,” Pitt said. 

One bill would allow the specific reading from a portable breathalyzer test (PBT), also known as the roadside breathalyzer, to be used to develop probable cause to charge a driver with a DWI. It currently can only be used by officers to determine whether there is alcohol present in the bloodstream, but specific numbers are not to be considered. 

The PBT is a handheld device. Inserted into that device is a disposable plastic straw into which a suspected impaired driver blows. Having such a tool at officers’ disposal is a significant advantage, Pitt said, considering issues they’ve had nailing down an admissible BAC before someone has time for that number to lower prior to doing the admissible intoxilyzer test at the magistrate’s office or having blood drawn at the hospital. 

“It’s time-saving and cost-saving,” Pitt said.

While Pitt initially advocated for the inclusion of a provision in that bill that would also enable officers to use an oral testing swab that can determine whether a driver is under the influence of narcotics, that ultimately will not be included in that bill. Rather, the taskforce will push for a pilot program in the next budget that would bring the test to three different prosecutorial districts, one near the coast, one in the Piedmont and one in the mountains, to see how they perform in different climates. It’s likely that the prosecutorial district that would get the pilot program in the mountains would be the 43rd, which includes the states’ seven westernmost counties.

Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Swain), a member of the public safety appropriations committee, was the primary sponsor of last year’s bills and will be the sponsor of next year’s bills. He said those items are likely to be introduced during the next long session coming up in January 2025. Although the bills weren’t heard last year, Clampitt is now optimistic.

“I think there will be more education for all the legislators, and there are more groups that have aligned themselves to get those bills heard,” he said. “We just want to curb people from drinking, take more responsibility and make wiser decisions.”

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