Mixed Reviews on Mississippi DUI Enforcement Changes

By TERRI FERGUSON SMITH, The Meridian Star | October 1, 2014

Changes in Mississippi’s DUI law that are due go into effect on Wednesday are getting mixed reviews from some in the judicial system.

The Mississippi Legislature drafted the new laws in 2013, with the stipulation that the changes would take effect this year. Legislators also made some changes during the 2014 session.

According to a summary of the law, when a person is convicted of their first offense DUI, the court will order them to complete an alcohol safety education program within a year and the Department of Public Safety must suspend their license if they have not already done so.

To become eligible to continue driving, the offender must get an interlock restricted license and must have an ignition interlock device installed in all vehicles to be driven.

Other changes in the law include the possibility of having the first DUI expunged or having it non-adjudicated, which means that after the case is resolved through a trial or through a guilty plea, the judge can withhold a judgment of guilt.

This is a one-time opportunity, as is the possibility of having a driver’s record cleared by expungement. In order to expunge, the driver must have a clear record of DUIs for at least five years after he completes all conditions of his sentence.

The possibility of expungement is significant, according to local attorney J. Stewart Parrish. For instance, if a college age driver gets a DUI, but learns their lesson, they have the opportunity to have the conviction removed from their record, Parrish said.

“They graduate. They are looking for a job. They have this DUI on their record. Now you can go back and you can expunge it. You can have it removed. There will be a confidential record kept so that you can’t do it twice, but you can have it taken off your driving record.”

This is helpful for people who have jobs that require them to drive as part of their duties, Parrish said. A non-adjudicated case is helpful also for a first-time offender.

“The first one doesn’t count and doesn’t hurt you again, but you are not eligible for it again, at least in the state of Mississippi, Parrish said.

Parrish called another component of the new law a “hammer.” A driver is allowed up to four DUIs that are considered misdemeanors but the next one is a felony, which often brings with it a sentence of house arrest. That’s four DUIs during the entire lifetime, he said.

There were concerns in some parts of the state about the availability of ignition interlock devices, but in Lauderdale County, the installation and maintenance of the devices will be available at Truck Accessories at 71 Highway 19 North in Meridian.

Gary Hurst, owner, said they received the equipment about a month ago and will be able to sell and service the ignition interlocks.

“Every month they will have to come back and we will have to take the device out and download it and then send the information to the home office,” Hurst said.

The computer data will tell the monitoring company whether the person tried to start the vehicle while over the legal alcohol limit.

District Attorney Bilbo Mitchell said the two changes that will affect offenders whose cases go to his office are issues dealing with felonies. If a first offense is expunged, Mitchell said, the case won’t get to his office until the fourth offense, rather than the third offense. That change worries him.

“It’s all fine with me except being able to expunge that first offense,” Mitchell said. “Right now a third offense becomes a felony and this is giving some folks the right to wait until a fourth offense to become a felony.”

Darlene Jones, clerk of Lauderdale County Justice Court, said they are preparing for judges to use the ignition interlock and to use the non-adjudicated route for first-time offenders.

“As long as they do everything the court ordered them to do within a certain period of time, then for one time only that DUI will not go on their driving record,” Jones said.

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