January 29, 2016

Harsher DWI penalties pass House committee

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Dueling philosophies between lawmakers on how to solve that state’s problem with drunk driving peppered debate in a House committee Thursday afternoon.

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

The seal of the state of New Mexico in the House

Lawmakers in the House Safety and Civil Affairs Committee heard three bills to add penalties to DWIs, all of which passed on mostly partisan grounds. Two of the bills, in fact, were called “Increase Certain DWI Penalties.”

One makes driving a car with a revoked driver’s license a fourth degree felony while punishing those who knowingly allow people with revoked licenses drive their cars. Another increases penalties for the fourth DWI by a year and ups someone’s eighth DWI from a third degree felony to a second degree felony. The third bill seeks to add DWI sentences to state habitual offender laws.

The bills come as part of the broader tough-on-crime agenda that the Republican leadership is promoting this Legislative session. Critics call the agenda a step back into the 1980s and 1990s, at a time when the rest of the country is going in a different direction.

Each of the lawmakers sponsoring the DWI legislation—Reps. Paul Pacheco, Sarah Maestas Barnes and Jim Dines, all Republicans from Albuquerque, respectively—spoke about New Mexico’s problems with DWI. Each time, law enforcement, a DWI advocacy group and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce spoke in support of the bills.

“We’ve just got to send some very clear messages, this is not a state that allows that,” Chamber of Commerce President Terri Cole said of Dines’s habitual offender bill.

And the same civil liberties groups, public defender associations and criminal defense groups testified in opposition.

“Anytime we are increasing mandatory sentences, that is a concern,” Kim Chavez Cook, lobbyist for the Law Office of the Public Defender, said of Maestas Barnes’s bill upping DWI felony penalties. “It’s taking power out of the judge’s hands.”

Rep. Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque, had a hard time swallowing a portion of Pacheco’s bill that penalizes people who knowingly lend their cars to drivers with revoked licenses. She brought up a hypothetical and fictional scenario of lending her car to fellow committee member Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, R-Albuquerque, when she doesn’t know he is on drugs.

“And you’re saying with this bill, if I lend him my car and he never told me his license is no good, does that mean I could lose my license for lending him my car?” Stapleton asked.

Pacheco explained that a prosecutor would only be successful by proving that the person lending the car knew the person driving shouldn’t have been driving.

“‘Knowingly’ is really the key word there,” Pacheco said.

Maestas Barnes’s bill was the only one of the three to receive bipartisan support in committee. Reps. Patricia Roybal Caballero and Andres Romero, who are both Albuquerque Democrats, voted against all three bills.

Romero warned that the bills could burden the courts. Roybal Caballero spoke of her largely different philosophy of criminal justice.

“I feel that we’re not looking at a systemic change in how we’re approaching all of these laws and reforms,” she said.