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Published: 4/9/2003

Legislators draft tough DUI bill

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Drunk drivers with five or more prior DUI convictions would receive a mandatory prison term of one to five years under a bill that Republican and Democratic lawmakers have introduced.

“This is necessary to send a message to those who are thinking about drinking and driving to not get into the car, and those who have done it will be serving a very severe sentence,” said state Rep. Scott Oelslager (R., Canton).

Under Ohio law, drunk drivers do not face a felony charge unless they have been convicted of four DUIs within six years.

In 2001, 17,000 people were killed nationwide in alcohol-related crashes - or about 40 percent of traffic deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Under the identical bills that Mr. Oelslager and state Sen. Leigh Herington (D., Ravenna) are sponsoring, a defendant who accumulates five DUI convictions - no matter how far back the cases go - would face a felony indictment on the sixth offense and all DUI offenses after that.

As of late last year, there were 7,089 people with six drunk-driving convictions in Ohio, according to state records.

Currently, the first three DUI convictions in Ohio are prosecuted as misdemeanors if the offender does not hurt or kill anyone while driving drunk.

For a first conviction, drunk drivers can lose their license for up to three years, face a fine of up to $1,000, and serve either three days in jail or have to attend a mandatory alcohol-abuse training session. They also must pay $425 to have their license reinstated.

If the offender has three convictions within the past six years, the fourth offense becomes a felony, with a maximum 21/2 year prison sentence, Mr. Oelslager said.

If an offender has a previous felony conviction for DUI, a fifth drunk-driving conviction could result in the offender getting a maximum of five years in prison.

“Again, that is discretionary on the part of the judge, but oftentimes they don't serve. In fact, the only mandatory DUI prison time served in the state is either 60 days or 120 days, depending on the defendant's alcohol level,” Mr. Oelslager said.

That would change under the bill, with a mandatory prison sentence of one to five years for DUI offenders who have five prior convictions.

Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh collected 12,000 signatures in support of the bill, after a man with 17 prior DUI convictions veered off the road and struck a teenage girl, who was severely injured but survived.

The man had served 18 months in prison, but his 18th arrest could not be prosecuted as a felony because he did not have four convictions within six years.

“There's been way too much disparity in the way DUI offenders have been treated,” Ms. Walsh said.

Gov. Bob Taft is examining how the bill might affect the state prison budget before he decides whether to support the legislation, said press secretary Orest Holubec.



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