Panel: Kansas Drunken Driving Laws Ineffective, In Need of Overhaul

February 11, 2009

A state board appointed to examine drunken driving laws in Kansas has concluded that the whole system needs a major overhaul.

The Kansas Substance Abuse Policy Board says the state’s system for punishing drunken drivers is “so complex and so dysfunctional that it is likely impervious to quick fixes.”

“We took the approach of having no preconceptions — most of us didn’t know how the system worked from the front end to the back end,” said board chairman Russell Jennings. “But I can assure you that every member of this board was somewhat surprised at how ineffective the system is.”

The report, distributed to legislators last month, is especially critical of the lack of an enhanced penalty for multiple offenders after their third DUI conviction.

“If it’s the 14th or the fourth offense, the penalty is the same under our law,” Jennings said.

While state law makes a third DUI conviction a felony that is supposed to be prosecuted in state court, Jennings said the law seems to reward municipal courts for overlooking a conviction or two if it lets them collect more court costs and fines.

“There’s at least the appearance of an incentive for not prosecuting at the highest level,” he said.

The report also cautions lawmakers against making patchwork changes in response to “headline grabbing” drunken driving incidents, and instead reworking the whole thing.

The board also said the state has too many jurisdictions — 416, including 31 state judicial districts and 385 municipal courts — with each jurisdiction setting its own standards for substance abuse treatment and education.

“That does not take into account that individual judges within these jurisdictions can further diversity what those standards are,” the report said.

There’s also no centralized database that prosecutors can use to research a person’s DUI history.

Jennings said the report recommends that legislators resist the temptation to “cherry pick” improvements to the state’s DUI laws and instead review the whole system.

“We do think it’s sufficiently broken that that should be the next step taking a much more comprehensive look,” he said.

The board was created last year at the request of former Republican state Sen. Phil Journey, who now is a Sedgwick County District Court judge.

Journey said he tried to get a grip on the DUI laws last year but found that the issues were too complex to be tackled by one person.

He called the board’s report a promising start to the process of revamping the state’s laws.

“There were a couple of things in there that kind of gave me pause, but I wasn’t surprised at their recognition of the depth and the breadth of the problem,” Journey said.

The report mentioned two specific DUI cases, one of which involved a Hutchinson man who was charged with his 11th DUI offense after wrecking his mo-ped.

The other was an Oct. 1 crash in Wichita in which Claudia Mijares and her 4-year-old daughter were run over and killed as they walked to the girl’s preschool.

“It is surprising to the authors that these tragedies do not occur more frequently than they do in Kansas,” the report said. “As we studied this issue, we found many things that need attention, and many parts of the ‘system’ about which we could be critical. It is this entire system that needs repair, or more appropriately reconstruction.”


Information from: The Wichita Eagle,

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