State Politics

NC House OKs tougher DWI laws

The N.C. House voted Monday night to toughen two state laws targeting repeat drunken drivers.

Both bills were sponsored by Democratic Rep. Darren Jackson of Wake County, and they garnered support from both parties. Jackson pointed to 2013 statistics that showed about one-third of traffic fatalities in North Carolina involved drunken drivers.

The first measure, House Bill 32, would lower the threshold for a habitual drunken driving charge. The current law applies to drivers charged four or more times within 10 years. If Jackson’s bill becomes law, a driver would be charged with habitual DWI on the third offense within 10 years.

Habitual drunken driving is a felony that carries a minimum of one year in jail, and the sentence can’t be suspended. Convicted drivers must also complete a substance abuse program while in jail or as a condition of parole.

Jackson, an attorney, said he recently represented a victim in a deadly drunken driving crash. “The defendant had five prior DWIs on his record,” Jackson said of the case. “He never hit that four times in 10 years, so they were never a felony and he was never taken off” the road.

Jackson said most other states set the bar for a felony at three drunken driving offenses. “It would be like baseball – third strike and you’re out,” he said.

The bill passed in a 112-2 vote and heads to the Senate.

Jackson’s other proposal, House Bill 31, addresses restrictions on convicted drunken drivers with license restrictions – typically first offenders. The bill would ban those drivers from getting behind the wheel with any alcohol in their system.

They’re currently allowed to drive with a blood-alcohol level of up to 0.04 percent – half the standard legal limit of 0.08. The bill passed in a 110-4 vote and will go to the Senate.

In other Monday night legislative action:

Gas tax debate to continue: In a 37-5 vote, the Senate voted down the House version of a bill to change how the state’s gas tax is calculated. The two chambers disagree on whether the new rate should be 36 cents or 35 cents per gallon, so the differences will be hashed out in a conference committee.

‘Look-see’ needed: The Senate took its first look at the House economic development bill, which increases jobs incentives available to Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration. The initial response? “That definitely needs to go to the Rules Committee for a little look-see – or a lot of look-see,” said Sen. Tom Apodaca, the rules chairman and a Hendersonville Republican.

Judicial catch-up: The House approved a bill that addresses a backlog in the state’s crime lab. House Bill 59 would allow lab analysts to send a written report instead of testifying in person unless the defendant asks them to appear. “This bill continues the wrestling match we’ve had for years with the backlogs of forensic tests in our labs,” said Rep. John Faircloth, a High Point Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “We’re not gaining a lot of ground. We have people who have cases that are three or four years old, waiting for evidence to be presented.” Faircloth’s bill passed 110-4 and heads to the Senate.