By L.A. Williams. Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Laura’s Law — named for a Gaston County teen killed by a drunken driver with three DWIs already on his record — would increase the punishment for driving while impaired and require more monitoring for repeat offenders. Lawmakers took up the matter Wednesday in a House Judiciary Subcommittee where they heard from Laura’s mother.
“There is nothing I can do for my child,” Michelle Armstrong said.”But I can help prevent it from happening to somebody else’s family — somebody else’s child, mother, brother, sister or father.”
According to investigator’s reports, 28-year-old Howard Pasour, of Bessemer City, was driving drunk and passing other traffic on July 25, 2010, when he ran head-on into the car in which Laura Fortenberry, 17, was a passenger. Two other teens were injured in the wreck.
Rep. Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), who introduced the bill to create a new level of DWI sentencing between the misdemeanor and the felony levels, said had such a law been in place when he was convicted, Pasour would still have been in jail and not on the road that fateful day.
As proposed, House Bill 49 would create the Aggravated Level One tier of punishment for DWI offenders whose cases involve at least three aggravating factors. Those could include another DWI conviction within the past seven years, a charge of driving while license revoked, causing serious injury to another person via impaired driving, or driving while impaired with a minor in the car. In addition to the usual DWI penalties, the punishment for Aggravated Level One would include a fine of up to $10,000 and at least 120 days in prison without parole. Judges could also order that a defendant released on probation abstain from alcohol consumption throughout probation (up to three years) and wear a continuous alcohol monitoring device to prove compliance. Offenders would have to pay for the monitoring and pay an additional $100 in court costs.
In explaining the need for the law, Moore said that while North Carolina has a statute for habitual DWI offenders, district attorneys don’t often pursue the felony offense, instead opting to keep DWI in the district court tract. He also said that current sentencing rules often allow drunken drivers out of jail after only about a third of their sentence, and that Laura’s Law would prevent that early parole by creating another misdemeanor level, but one with “some real teeth it.”
While committee members applauded the bill’s goals, some questioned its finer points, specifically the need for more supervision after release from prison and how the cost of monitoring could be handled fairly.
Rep. Angela Bryant (D-Nash) said she was concerned that a working class person would not be able to afford the CAM (continuous alcohol monitoring) device and wanted to know what happens if a judge orders the device and the offender doesn’t pay. Current law allows for the devices for only up to 60 days after release and caps cost at $1,000.
Moore said the cost is payable over time and simply a part of the consequences.
“At the end of the day, these guys chose to drink and drive, so I don’t feel sorry for them,” he said.
A representative from a company that makes the CAM devices told the committee the standard rate for installing the ankle bracelets is about $75, with monitoring around $12 per day. He said his company was working to implement a sliding fee scale that would charge clients, $6, $12 or $18 per day depending on their ability to pay.
Rep. David Guice (R-Henderson), a retired probation/parole officer, questioned the wisdom of taking the Aggravated Level One offender out of the parole system. While he said he understood the need to eliminate early release, he said doing away with parole means eliminating much needed supervision after offenders leave prison.
“I want to ensure, when these people are released that the structure is there for them to get the treatment and the things that are necessary for them not to reoffend,” Guice said.
Rep. Phillip Haire (DHaywood) questioned the effectiveness of the $10,000 fine and said he doubted the bill’s punishment structure would have the desired affect of keeping drunk drivers off the road.
“We need to put them in counseling … we need to address the issue of the alcohol and start before they get to the third offense,” he said.
But Moore pointed out that the majority if not all offenders that reach Aggravated Level One will have already been through counseling when arrested for an earlier offense and, in fact, many of them would have already served some time in jail.
“At the end of the day, there are some of these guys, I don’t care what you do, they are going to go out here and re-offend. When they get out of prison, they’re going to do it again …” Moore said, later adding. “That’s why the courts are always going to be in business and we’re always going to have DAs and police …. But it seems to me if we can keep some of the those guys in jail longer, we’re all the better for it.”
Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake), who chaired the meeting, said legislators and staff would continue working on the bill after which the subcommittee will take it up for a vote. If favorable, Laura’s Law would then advance to the House Finance Committee.
In addition to Moore, other primary sponsors of House Bill 49 include Gaston County representatives Kelly Hastings (R-Gaston ) and John Torbett (R-Gaston) as well as Rep. Harry Warren (R-Rowan).