Judges wary of state’s new DUI law

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 13, 2000

Some local judges say they are facing a &uot;nightmare&uot; thanks to a new law requiring them to impound vehicles owned by people convicted of a second DUI.

The law, which was signed by the governor in May and designed to help curb drunk driving, goes into effect&160;Sept. 1 and has judges worried about how they will enforce it.

&uot;The intent of the law was very good,&uot; Adams County Justice Court Judge Charles Vess said. &uot;I, like anyone else, do not like seeing drunk drivers on the highway.&uot;

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But the logistics of the law create &uot;a nightmare for the county,&uot; Vess said.

The law requires all vehicles registered to someone convicted of a second DUI to be impounded or immobilized for the length of time the person’s driver’s license is on suspension, with the cost assigned to the car’s owner.

The vehicle can be released only if someone else in the family needs it.

And in that case, the vehicle will have to have an ignition interlock system installed — a system which connects a vehicle’s ignition system to a breath-alcohol analyzer. This will also be done at the owner’s expense.

Some judges are concerned about parts the law — such as the liability of impounding personal property.

&uot;We’re talking about an individual’s personal property,&uot; Vess said. &uot;Someone is going to have to be liable to make sure the property is not damaged or destroyed.&uot;

Vess said county officials may need to find an impoundment lot that has a fence designed to prevent burglaries. Otherwise, local officials could face more liability if vehicles are damaged in the impoundment lot.

&uot;As a citizen, I would be upset, because I’ve done what the law required me to do and someone didn’t take care of my vehicle,&uot; Vess said.

&uot;I think the state is obligated to make sure that vehicle is protected.&uot;

Under the new law, a person’s vehicle would be impounded for the length of time their license would be suspended, which can be as long as a year.

And since most vehicles involved in DUI second offenses are older vehicles valued at less than $3,000, the law also raises questions about impounding a vehicle for that length of time at a cost of about $15 a day, Vess said.

Vess, who estimates the three Adams County Justice Court judges see several hundred DUI second offenses a year, said the county needs a centralized impound lot to hold the vehicles.

Vess plans to speak to the Adams County Board of Supervisors Monday about the new law.

Natchez Municipal Judge John Tipton agrees the law has created many questions.

&uot;We’re all sitting around scratching our heads, figuring out how we are going to comply with it,&uot; Tipton said.

Under the new law, those convicted must serve at least five days in jail, a sentence which can not be suspended.

Before the new law was passed, those people convicted of a second DUI offense could serve up to 10 days, but those days could be suspended, Tipton said.

Tipton said his one of his biggest concerns with the law is the financial burden an impound lot could place on the city.

Tipton also wonders how the court will be able to determine how many vehicles a person has registered in their name.

People may put their vehicles in another name after being arrested so they won’t be impounded.

And most likely, the law will require the courts to appoint more attorneys and will have more trials and appeals as more people convicted of a second DUI offense try to avoid the jail time and the impoundment, judges said.

The law will also cause a problem for other counties.

Tipton said he probably sees 25 to 35 second-offense DUIs a year in Natchez Municipal Court. But larger cites, such as Jackson, will have many more, and small rural areas may not even have an impound area.

&uot;It’s going to be a nightmare to say the least,&uot; Tipton said, adding that it would be easiest for local officials if Natchez and Adams County could find one central impoundment for both to use.

Justice Court Judge Mary Lee Davis Toles said she did not know many details of the law but she is also concerned about impounding the vehicles.

&uot;That’s going to affect lots of people,&uot; she said. &uot;I just personally felt the DUI law that we had was sufficient.&uot;

Toles said she is not certain if the new law is needed, but she plans to follow what the Legislature has mandated.

State Rep. Phillip West served on the judiciary committee that presented the bill but said he voted against it in committee.

&uot;I had some real reservations about that law,&uot; he said.

West said he was concerned about the hardship it could place on families and the liability of impounding vehicles.

&uot;It’s not going to be foolproof,&uot; he said. &uot;It could impact the family negatively.&uot;

West also doubts whether the interlock devices would be effective. For example, someone with an interlock device on their vehicle may get someone else to blow into it for them, he said.

&uot;(The law) may serve as a deterrent to a certain extent but there are a lot of loopholes in the law,&uot; West said, adding that all laws have loopholes.

But West said he does not have a problem with the intent of the law, which is to curb drinking and driving.

&uot;Many times the intention is good (but) sometimes it creates more problems than it solves,&uot; West said.