New laws stiffen penalties for DUI, related offenses

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 30, 2004

[6/30/04]Mississippians convicted of driving drunk will be forced to pay larger fines beginning Thursday.

The increase is in the portion of the fine assessed for the state, from $158 to $178, and is among three changes in DUI laws taking effect July 1 under laws passed during this year’s regular session of the Mississippi Legislature.

All fines are sums of levies for various accounts. In Warren County, a total DUI fine will rise to just more than $600 with the change.

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Two other changes further stiffen penalties for drunken drivers if they are convicted after a wreck that results in death or injury of another person.

“It was an oversight when the law was drafted that should have been corrected, and now it has been,” said 9th Circuit District Attorney Gil Martin. His office prosecutes about two or three aggravated driving while intoxicated cases each year.

Under the new laws, the maximum punishment for an aggravated DUI will be 25 years. Also, effective after the bill was signed into law in May, drivers convicted of aggravated DUI, one resulting in death or serious injury, must serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

Before the change, aggravated DUI was misclassified as a nonviolent offense.

Typically, if someone is seriously injured or dies as a result of a wreck involving alcohol, the case is tried as an aggravated assault or as manslaughter. A conviction in those cases can bring a maximum penalty of 20 years.

Also under the new laws, offenders can be charged for each victim who is injured or killed. Current statutes allow only one charge to be filed despite the number of victims.

“It only makes good sense if you have multiple victims that you’d be able to file an aggravated DUI for each victim,” said Warren County Sheriff Martin Pace.

He said the sheriff’s department had 232 DUI arrests in 2003, about average for the past five years.

“Drunk driving, in general, probably endangers the general public more than any other criminal activity,” Pace said. “And I’m glad to see the Legislature is recognizing that, and I wholeheartedly agree with the changes in our DUI laws.”

Vicksburg Police Chief Tommy Moffett said police made 117 DUI arrests in 2003. “The message needs to be sent, and the message needs to be strong, that drunk driving is a danger to the traveling public,” he said. “We need to do things necessary to get these people off the streets.”

Moffett also noted that aggressively pursuing felony offenders could help ward off those that result in injury death.

“We need harsher sentences before it gets to this point,” the police chief said. “If we don’t vigorously pursue felony DUIs, it’s only being pursued after someone is hurt.”

The district attorney added that the changes will enable his office to prosecute those cases more easily because prosecutors will not have to prove intent, as they must in manslaughter and aggravated assault cases.

Other changes taking effect Thursday deal with:

State prisoners: Nonviolent inmates will be given the chance to earn a day off their sentences for each day they work up from the one day off they’ve gotten for every three days of labor.

State parks: In a money-saving move, the state will close Legion Park near Louisville, Casey Jones Museum and State Park near Vaughn, Florewood Plantation State Park near Greenwood, Nanih Wayia State Park near Noxapater and Sam Dale State Park north of Meridian.

Musical heritage: A new commission will market Mississippi blues sites to tourists.

High-speed chases: Penalties increase for drivers who flee law enforcement officers. Also, all police agencies must adopt pursuit policies or training programs.

Personalized plates: Specialty car tags will be allowed for more organizations or causes, including those to raise awareness of breast cancer, to promote Mississippi as “Home of the Blues” or to declare support for the state Department of Archives and History.

Military honor: A Mississippi Medal of Valor has been commissioned and will be given to families of National Guardsmen who die while on duty. The governor may also give the medal retroactively to active-duty military recipients of the Medal of Honor or the Purple Heart. The new medal becomes the second-highest of 10 awards for state National Guard service.

Civil rights leader remembered: Interstate 20-Mississippi 15 exit in Newton County is named the Medgar Evers Memorial Interchange for the Mississippi NAACP leader who was assassinated outside his Jackson home in June 1963.

Silver screen: Moviemakers will get 10 percent tax credits and rebates for working in Mississippi. The incentives would be for everything from paying local actors to buying equipment.

Drug courts: Funds become available by adding $10 to the fines for felonies, traffic offenses, DUI, game and fish violations and littering. An $8 fine will be added to misdemeanor convictions. Officials at the Administrative Office of Courts say the fees could generate up to $5 million a year. Drug courts sentence people arrested for narcotics possession to rehabilitation rather than prison.

Abortion: The change formally allows health-care workers to opt out of participating in abortions if they object to the procedure. The law also requires that abortions must be performed in an outpatient clinic or a hospital rather than an abortion clinic, starting at 13 weeks’ gestation. Current law allows abortions at abortion clinics up to 16 weeks’ gestation. Doctors must also file reports with the state Health Department after treating patients for medical complications arising from abortion.

Sex offenders: People with criminal records as sex offenders must disclose that fact when they volunteer for groups that provide youth programs.

Outdoors: Members of the military can receive resident fishing and hunting licenses.