Drivers face stiffer DUI penalties under new law

  • REP. CHRIS LEE

A new law that took effect July 1 is providing for tougher penalties for DUI offenders.

House Bill 703, now Act 169, lowers the threshold for a habitual DUI arrest and charge from three or more DUI convictions in the prior 10 years to two or more convictions in a decade.

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House Judiciary Chairman Chris Lee, a Windward Oahu Democrat, said the law he introduced “increases penalties across the board for DUIs and especially for repeat DUIs.”

The new law increases fines, lengths of license revocation for first time offenders, and specifies that a habitual operator of a vehicle under the influence of an intoxicant convicted two or more times can be sentenced to a five-year prison term or probation of five years, along with a mandatory revocation of license for three to five years, and a fine of between $2,000 to $5,000. In addition, any vehicle owned and operated by the person committing the crime may be subject to forfeiture.

“It increases financial penalties from hundreds to thousands of dollars. It increases the period of license revocation from months to years and increases penalties for repeat offenders from likely probation to likely jail time,” Lee told the Tribune-Herald.

The bill also established a task force to determine which further changes in our DUI laws are needed to help keep drunk drivers off the road. Arkie Koehl, public policy chairman of the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said Hawaii has had very lenient DUI laws for years.

“We are looking for the task force to develop a comprehensive overhaul of the DUI laws as they stand now. There is a number of things that need to be changed,” Koehl said.

The Legislature rejected a portion of the initial bill that would’ve prohibited those convicted of DUI or habitual DUI from purchasing or publicly consuming alcohol for a period of three years following conviction or administrative driver’s license revocation.

“That portion of it got turned into a working group to figure out how to implement, so they’ll come back in January with the (proposed) statutory changes to implement that,” Lee said. He said he hopes those changes will be made in the 2020 legislative session.

Since the new law went into effect this month, at least four repeat DUI offenders have been arrested on Oahu and face long prison sentences and other penalties under the new law, Lee said.

The most recent Big Island habitual DUI arrest made was on March 10, prior to the new law taking effect. On that date, Masayoki S. George, 35, of Kailua-Kona was charged with habitual DUI, driving after license suspended or revoked for DUI, driving without insurance and refusing to provide identification to a police officer.

George was killed in the early morning hours of May 30 in a hit-and-run collision on Hualalai Road fronting the Kailua-Kona Public Library. According to police, it appeared George — a pedestrian at the time — was lying on the roadway when he was run over by what authorities think was either a truck or sport-utility vehicle.

Police are still seeking the driver in that collision and haven’t said whether George was under the influence of alcohol at the time.

“Last year, there were 33 fatalities because of drunk drivers and over 5,000 arrests for drunk driving statewide. It’s clearly a problem that persists,” Lee said. “The Legislature, the police departments and the prosecutors are taking it seriously and significantly increasing penalties to try and deter this reckless behavior. These people have gotten behind the wheel knowing that they’re intoxicated — and that’s a choice that has potentially lethal consequences, and can no longer be tolerated.”

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Hawaii County Prosecutor Mitch Roth didn’t return a call seeking comment by deadline Thursday.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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