Lower DUI limit could lead to unnecessary arrests, critics say

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(KUTV) – A controversial plan to lower the blood-alcohol limit for driving under the influence in Utah will likely be debated in the House of Representatives this week.

The bill would make Utah the first state in the country with a blood-alcohol limit under the current .08. Rep. Norm Thurston, R-Provo, wants to lower the limit to .05.

Critics of the bill argue lowering the limit will wrap more people into the messy legal battle of fighting a DUI.

“It would certainly cast a wider net across the population of Utah,” Defense attorney Darren Levitt said.

Levitt defends DUI cases and said while there are other factors that go into a DUI prosecution, the main element is almost always the blood-alcohol level.

“I’ve had several cases recently with numbers in the .07 range, .06, where the prosecutor has declined to go forward based on the number,” Levitt said.

He added that public perception of anyone who opposes the bill is that they support driving under the influence, which he says is obviously not the case.

When the proposed bill was debated in the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee on Feb. 10, opponents said lowering the DUI limit is an unnecessary limit on personal freedoms.

Attorney Sean Druyon represented the Utah Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and said even small amounts of alcohol could put someone at or above .05.

“You think about one glass of wine for a woman and that puts them over the limit,” Druyon said.

He argued tourists, who are not familiar with Utah law, could end up facing a DUI charge for driving with the same level of alcohol in their system that would be perfectly fine in any other state.

“This has a huge impact on driver’s who have never got an alcohol related charge. They’re losing their licenses, they’re losing their jobs,” Druyon said. “This proposed law doesn’t find that proper sweet spot in balancing [protecting the public] with personal freedom.”

While there was more support for the bill than against it at the committee hearing, Thurston’s proposal doesn’t have universal support, even from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which hasn’t taken a position on the bill.

“It takes a lot to get the law moved and get the whole country moved,” MADD's Utah director Art Brown said.

Brown lost his grandson in a DUI related crash on Interstate 15 several years ago. He said a lower blood-alcohol level would probably discourage people from driving drunk, but said MADD hasn’t taken up the cause on a national level.

“Our message is the same as all others, safety officials, don’t drink and drive at all,” Brown said. “If you drive under the influence you can be taken off the road at any level in this state alone.”

Brown is right, even in Utah you don’t have to have a .08 to be arrested for DUI. While the blood-alcohol test is used, other factors of impairment are considered when determining if someone is driving under the influence.

“There’s much more to a DUI than what their breathalyzer shows,” Cottonwood Heights Police Lieutenant Dan Bartlett said. “I don’t know that lowering the limit would have that much of a difference on the way we look at our DUIs.”

Bartlett said his department will enforce the law regardless of what the legislature decides to do about the blood-alcohol limit.

He added that Cottonwood Heights officers are seeing more drivers under the influence of substances other than alcohol.

“We are seeing an increase in mixed use, not just alcohol, but alcohol and pills,” Bartlett said. “It’s just as dangerous as driving with alcohol.”

Of Cottonwood Heights’ approximately 150 DUIs in 2016, around 65 percent were alcohol related. The rest were either prescription or recreational drugs, according to department statistics.

Bartlett said he and his fellow officers would like some more guidance on interpreting the law when it comes to impairments caused by prescription medication.

Thurston’s DUI bill will likely be debated on the floor of the House of Representatives later this week.

2News contacted Rep. Thurston for comment Tuesday morning, but has not heard back as of 6:30 p.m.

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