R.I. High Court Backs Tougher Drunk Driving Law

June 30, 2008

The state’s high court has backed a 2006 law that applies harsher penalties to drivers who refuse to take a Breathalyzer test.

Before the law passed, nearly 85 percent of suspected drunken drivers were refusing the test. The law doubled the minimum license suspension for those who refused the test to six months, and added possible prison time and high fines for second offenses.

Gov. Don Carcieri signed the law two days before he signed an annual budget bill, which didn’t include the stiffer penalties.

Three men charged with Breathalyzer refusal argued that Carcieri wiped out the new law when he signed the budget bill, and Superior Court Stephen Fortunato agreed in January 2007 when he ruled that the budget bill was the “controlling statute.”

The state Supreme Court put Fortunato’s ruling on hold to allow for an appeal.

On Thursday, the court ruled in a 13-page opinion that the new law stood because the General Assembly signed it after passing the budget. It said the timing of Carcieri’s signature on the budget was irrelevant and that the legislature did not intend for the budget bill to repeal the refusal law.

Attorney General Patrick Lynch praised the ruling as a “victory for public safety.”

“The law is clear, the law is working, and the law sends a very powerful message that in Rhode Island there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving,” Lynch said in a written statement.

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