Lawmakers consider new penalty for OWIs

WLFI File Photo
WLFI File Photo

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — A nationwide debate is reaching Indiana with a little known bill moving through the Statehouse.

The original bill would have required an ignition interlock device installed on every car of every drunken driver, including first time offenders. Ignition interlocks are what some call “the new prohibition.” Others say it’s exactly what’s needed to get drunk drivers off the road.

Our sister station, WISH-TV,  obtained video of the violent impact of a suspected drunken driving crash in Greenwood. Dennis Brown, the father of a man injured in the crash, got a phone call in the middle of the night.

“It was about 2:30 in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, a day to be thankful. My first thought was he was dead,” Dennis Brown said.

Michael Brown, 35, suffered traumatic brain injury.

“I had to learn to walk again, talking has been difficult. I hit my head pretty hard on the steering wheel and dashboard,” Michael Brown said from the hospital.

Michael’s fiancée, Vestina Grenzow, had broken vertebrates and a concussion.

After some digging, it was found the driver of the other car, Derrick Means, has a record. This is his third arrest. Ontario, Calif. police arrested him in 2008 for a hit-and-run accident and DUI. Before he was even convicted of those crimes and within a year, Plainfield police arrested him for OWI in July 2009. He pleaded guilty to OWI a month later.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving supports legislation that would require an ignition interlock on the car of every person convicted of operating while intoxicated. It’s a device offenders blow into and if they’ve been drinking, the car won’t start. A bill that’s made its way through the Indiana legislature for the past decade mandating ignition interlocks hasn’t passed.

Our sister station, WISH-TV, took the issue of a law mandating ignition interlocks for all cases to Marion Superior Court Judge Bill Nelson of Indianapolis.

“I don’t appreciate being told what to do or how to do my job. We need to focus on the offender, not the vehicle,” Nelson said.

Judge Nelson has up to 300 OWI cases at a time in his felony court. By the time they reach his court, this is not their first offense. He has concerns about how the interlock will be paid for. The offender pays for the installation and monitoring. For six months, that could be more than $600.

This legislative session, State Rep. Cindy Kirchofer amended the bill that will now not mandate the interlock but allow an offender to volunteer to get an interlock before being convicted. This week the bill moved to the state Senate for a vote.

Alicia Turner with the Indiana chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving supported the first version.

“I really think with Indiana taking a stance and making offenders — especially first time offenders — use this interlock device, I think that it would make the numbers of fatalities decrease,” Turner said.

But the American Beverage Institute, which represents restaurants, says a first time offender just above the legal blood-alcohol limit should not be treated the same as a repeat offender, such as the driver that night in Greenwood on his third drunken driving arrest at more than three times the legal limit.

The institute took out an ad featuring Lindsey Lohan saying ignition interlock was “good for her” but not those pictured below her mug shot at a wedding or having a few after work.

ABI Director Sarah Longwell questions why a 120-pound woman who drinks two 6 ounce glasses of wine over two hours would be punished the same as a repeat offender who has had 10 drinks prior to driving.

“Part of our job as a judge is to look at the facts of each case and judge each case individually and separately,” Judge Nelson said.

And he has concerns that just like those who continue to drive on the current punishment of a suspended license, offenders can find a way around the interlock device.

“There are just too many ways around it. If the technology gets better then I would be all for it, but I don’t think I would ever be for a mandated first offender to be monitored that way,” Nelson said.

There’s also the question of who tracks the program. The latest version of the bill has the Indiana State Department of Toxicology coming up with standards and testing of the devices. Who’s responsible for oversight is still in question.

Michael Brown and his fiancée, Vestina Grenzow, want to see more cracking down on drunken drivers.

“I’ve lost two friends to drinking and driving. Both were hit by a drunk driver,” Grenzow said.

The American Beverage Institute uses a comparison of speeding drivers to drunken drivers. The group says driving 5 mph over the speed limit isn’t punished the same as a person driving 25 mph over. Why? They told I-Team 8 the person driving 25 mph over poses a far greater risk.

So far, the ignition interlock is mandatory for all convicted drunken drivers in 17 states.

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