Tennessee Ignition Cutoff Law Targets First Time Convicted Drunk Drivers

September 29, 2010

Tennessee, already considered tough on first-time DUI offenders, is about to get tougher.

Lawmakers recently passed a bill that will require some drivers convicted of a first DUI to install alcohol-detecting ignition devices to stop their cars from starting if they’ve been drinking.

Some defense attorneys say the law, which takes effect Jan. 1, goes too far. But police and victims say the stringent measures are necessary.

Last year, police made 27,775 driving-under-the-influence arrests in Tennessee, said Dayla J. Qualls, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Safety.

Of those convicted of their first DUI, about one-third will net a second DUI charge within three years, said Tom Kimball, the traffic safety resource prosecutor with the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference in Nashville.

“This law is a step in the right direction, but we’re not done with this problem,” said Kimball, who trains prosecutors, judges and law enforcement across the state.

The device will be required in certain cases, including for those arrested with a blood-alcohol content of .15 — nearly twice the legal limit of .08 — or above. Anyone who has previously been charged with a DUI that was reduced to a charge of reckless driving will also get the device.

Memphis defense attorney Edward S. Ryan says the device, which won’t allow the ignition to start if the driver registers a .02, is too restrictive.

“If it’s someone with a history of drinking and violating the law, then it’s a good tool,” he said. “But it’s not for someone who made a poor decision one night.”

Knoxville defense attorney Steven Oberman said the device is also expensive.

Defendants will have to pay installation costs of up to $70 and monthly monitoring of up to $100. Those who can’t pay can ask for assistance through the indigent reserve fund, which is money from court fees. But Oberman said he doubts there will be enough money in the fund to keep up with demand.

“Tennessee is already one of the toughest on first offenders,” said Oberman, author of the book “DUI: The Crime and Consequences in Tennessee.”

Unlike some other states, Tennessee mandates a 48-hour jail stay for every person convicted on his or her first DUI, he said. And, unlike some other jurisdictions, the Volunteer State doesn’t allow the record of a DUI conviction to be expunged even if the driver is never arrested again, he said.

Texas natives Paul and Marianne Walker are among those in favor of tightening DUI laws. Their son, Jeff Walker, 25, was one of the 377 victims who died in Tennessee in 2007 due to drunken drivers.

Their son was in Memphis for job training when a 38-year-old man — whose previous arrests included charges of reckless driving, driving on a suspended license and DUI — crossed into oncoming traffic on Feb. 4, 2007, and slammed into Walker’s black Honda Accord on Tenn. 385 just west of Kirby Road.

After three years of silence about their tragedy, the Walkers decided to share their pain — and their son’s mangled car. Memphis police Lt. John Mannon has begun showing the car at fairs and will soon take it to area schools and community gatherings.

“It’s a shock value,” Marianne Walker said of the car. “We realize people have flippant attitudes, but we have to try to get the message across.”

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