N.C. House unanimously agrees to DWI laws changes

By: - July 21, 2005 5:33 am

Wilmington StarNews Online

The state House unanimously approved a host of changes to North Carolina’s drunken-driving laws on Wednesday, with the intent of improving enforcement.

The 43-page bill, which now heads to the Senate for consideration, tracks many of the recommendations of a task force formed by Gov. Mike Easley. Many changes are designed to ensure that judges, prosecutors and law enforcement statewide follow the same streamlined procedures in handling these cases.

"I hope we can take another step forward in combating the scourge of drunk driving in North Carolina," said Rep. Joe Hackney, D-Orange, the bill’s primary sponsor.

Most of the debate focused on a provision that would make clear that anyone under 21 years old found drinking alcohol is guilty of a misdemeanor. Currently the law applies to purchasing or possessing alcohol.

An amendment by Rep. Phil Haire, D-Jackson, would have removed the consumption provision. Haire said the change would needlessly cite young people who have made a mistake, even in situations where they are being driven home by someone sober.

Once a person turns 18, "you can do anything that an adult can do except for one thing, and that’s buy a beer," Haire said. "We’re going to say to these young people, ‘If you are caught consuming one beer than you’re a criminal’?"

Other House members disagreed with the amendment, saying the law essentially already bans alcohol consumption because drinking a beer can’t be done without possessing it. The extra language would affirm that, said Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell.

"People want us to be tough on underage drinking," he said before the amendment failed by a wide margin.

House members agreed to another amendment that would make any commercial driver guilty of driving while impaired if a police officer’s test reveals any alcohol in the person’s blood.

The current threshold for commercial drivers is a blood-alcohol content of 0.04 percent – lower than the 0.08 percent for most other drivers.

"We do not let airline pilots fly with 0.04 percent," said the amendment sponsor, Rep. Ed Jones, D-Halifax, a retired trooper. "It’s just inconceivable to me to have a person on our highways … with alcohol in their system."

State law already cites drivers with North Carolina commercial licenses on a different offense if they are drinking while driving or while alcohol remains in their body.

The amendment was approved 74-36 even after arguments that it may unjustly punish drivers who may have consumed a beer the night before going out on a job the next day.

The crux of the bill lays out or clarifies how a police officer or trooper handles the arrest of a motorist accused of impairment and the court procedures in the case.

It also makes clear that a person can be convicted of driving while impaired if a breath test shows a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or higher. Some judges have used other criteria because they contend these tests aren’t exact, according to Hackney.

"The law has been inconsistently applied across North Carolina," he said. "I’m pretty convinced that the Breathalyzer is reliable."

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066