March 5, 1997 in Nation/World

Suspended-License Law May Be Softened Idaho Legal System Burdened By People Convicted Of Driving Without Privileges

Betsy Z. Russell Winda Benedetti Con Staff writer
 

Idaho’s harsh penalties for driving with a suspended license would get an overhaul under legislation that passed the House unanimously Tuesday.

“It’s a serious offense - it’s something that we shouldn’t take lightly,” said Rep. Bill Sali, R-Meridian. But Idaho’s current penalties for driving without privileges are “kind of like killing an ant with an atom bomb,” Sali said.

Idaho has 104 state prison inmates for whom DWP was the most serious offense they committed. And there are 52 reasons why an Idaho driver’s license may be suspended.

The state now imposes mandatory minimum jail terms for first and second offenses, along with additional license suspensions. A third offense is a felony, bringing up to three years in prison.

“I think the criminal justice system was unnecessarily creating a new class of felons,” said Bill Douglas, Kootenai County prosecutor.

“That’s not a good use of the judicial system or the correctional system, either one,” Sali said.

In some cases, the mandatory minimum sentences for driving without privileges exceed the penalties for drunken driving.

Judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, court officials and the Idaho Transportation Department agreed there were problems with the laws. DWP is the most common offense seen in Idaho’s court system.

Fourteen months ago, ITD convened a study group that looked into the issue, and after exhaustive study, proposed new legislation.

That legislation went through more changes under the direction of Sali’s subcommittee of the House Judiciary and Rules Committee.

But by the time the 40-page bill hit the House floor Tuesday, there was no opposition.

“I had several legislators that called and said, boy, that’s really a good bill - why didn’t we do this sooner?” Sali said.

The sweeping bill makes a series of changes in the DWP laws, while leaving alone the laws for suspensions stemming from drunken driving. The key changes include:

Eliminating the charge of felony DWP. Third offenses still could draw up to three years, but the time would be served in jail, rather than in prison.

The legislation is not retroactive, so people now serving time in prison for DWP would have to serve out their terms. But no new felony charges would be brought.

Eliminating the mandatory minimum jail terms and mandatory minimum license suspension terms from the DWP laws, while leaving the maximums alone. That allows judges more discretion in sentencing.

Allowing increased use of restricted driving permits, at the court’s discretion and under a new list of guidelines. Restricted driving permits previously were not allowed for anything beyond the first offense.

Allowing first-time offenders charged with driving without proof of insurance to get insurance before their court date, reducing their fines and allowing them to avoid high-cost, high-risk insurance. That expensive insurance now causes some to reoffend and step onto the cycle of repeat violations.

Eliminating multiple fines that stem from the same offense.

The overall package should make it easier for citizens to avoid getting caught in a never-ending spiral of more and more serious violations that all stem from a minor offense, said Marie Bishop of the Idaho Transportation Department.

“We want people to comply,” Bishop said. “Because otherwise, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.”

Under the bill, drivers who must drive for work, child-care or other reasons can make that case to a judge and win restricted driving privileges. Those drivers now often simply continue to drive, setting themselves up for repeat violations and eventually, prison.

“Punishment that is unrealistic brings about a disrespect for the criminal justice system,” Douglas said. “These new revisions truly impose suspensions which more accurately reflect the severity of the offense.”

In 1996, 40,784 Idahoans had their driver’s licenses suspended.

Said Sali, “These people get caught in a downward spiral of automatic jail time and automatic suspensions that’s almost impossible to get out of.”

The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration.

, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PROPOSED CHANGES IN LAW Key changes include: Eliminating the charge of felony DWP. Eliminating mandatory minimum jail terms and license suspensions. Allowing increased use of restricted driving permits. Allowing first-time offenders charged with driving without proof of insurance to get insurance before their court date. Eliminating multiple fines that stem from the same offense.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer Staff writer Winda Benedetti contributed to this report.

This sidebar appeared with the story: PROPOSED CHANGES IN LAW Key changes include: Eliminating the charge of felony DWP. Eliminating mandatory minimum jail terms and license suspensions. Allowing increased use of restricted driving permits. Allowing first-time offenders charged with driving without proof of insurance to get insurance before their court date. Eliminating multiple fines that stem from the same offense.

The following fields overflowed: BYLINE = Betsy Z. Russell Staff writer Staff writer Winda Benedetti contributed to this report.


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