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Tougher DUI penalties begin today

COVINGTON - State law enforcement officials are gearing up for what they expect to be a dangerous Fourth of July holiday, with predictions of a dozen alcohol-related deaths over the long weekend.

But today, a new DUI law will go into effect that promises to crack down on repeat offenders, according to a news release issued by the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

During the 2008 legislative session, the Georgia House and Senate passed House Bill 336, creating a felony-level DUI charge with mandatory jail time for those repeat offenders who have stacked up four drunk driving convictions on their 10-year driving record.

"This landmark legislation carries heavier fines, mandatory offender evaluations and jail times, stricter probation and longer community service penalties," said GOHS Director Bob Dallas in the news release. "It should make any responsible driver think twice before ever climbing behind the wheel while impaired."

Rockdale County District Attorney Richard Read said he believes the new law does send a message that those who drink and drive can face possible jail time and a felony conviction.

"It is going to be an opportunity to eventually get to those folks who have committed their fourth DUI, to really put some teeth to the DUI law and really hold people accountable for their actions," Read said.

The law makes it easier to prosecute someone for DUI as a felony. Before today, people convicted of their third DUI had their licenses revoked. On the fourth conviction, prosecutors had to process the case as a habitual violator for it to become a felony, and then previous DUIs counted only five years back.

The new law automatically makes the fourth DUI conviction a felony and extends the time frame for previous convictions for 10 years.

Asked if the tougher law was necessary, Read said today's new DUI law is a continuation of increasing the penalty for drunk driving.

"In the grand scheme of things, in order to try and make the public safer and to make our roadways safer and to try to keep these people who can be a danger to the community off the roads," Read said, "yeah, it was probably necessary. It's an additional tool to, once again, try to make sure people don't drink and drive."

Georgia was one of five states that had no DUI felony law before State Rep. Kevin Levitas (D-Atlanta), authored the bill.

"Few people realize there's research that shows people drive drunk 87 times before being caught for one DUI," Levitas said. "Just try to calculate in your head how many times these multiple offenders may have driven drunk before they were caught the fourth time and charged and convicted under the old law. It's time we got their attention."

Newton County District Attorney Ken Wynne said Georgia's DUI laws are not the nation's toughest and called the new law a "step in the right direction in protecting motorists and pedestrians on Georgia's roads."

"I think part of the rationale was that if the fourth shoplifting conviction is a felony ... if you steal a candy bar four different times ... if it's a felony to do that, then it should be a felony if you're caught DUI four times," Wynne said.

He said prosecutors have been frustrated in the past when they've had cases of someone who's been charged with DUI for the fourth time, but the offenses were outside the set time limit of five years.

"I think this law will ensnare many drivers who have escaped punishment," he said.

The new law requires first-time offenders to undergo drug and alcohol evaluation which could result in strict, court-supervised substance abuse treatment designed to decrease the likelihood of recurring offenses. Formerly, such evaluation was only required on the second offense.

Under the new law, first and second DUI convictions are treated as misdemeanors; third DUI convictions are treated as high and aggravated misdemeanors; and fourth or subsequent convictions committed within 10 years are treated as felonies.

Penalties include completion of counseling and alcohol and drug risk reduction programs, community service and probation, plus:

· First time convictions: fines ranging from $300 to $1,000; a period of imprisonment from 10 days to 12 months (although a judge may probate all but 24 hours of jail time);

· Second time convictions: fines ranging from $600 to $1,000; a period of imprisonment from 90 days to 12 months (offender must serve 72 hours of actual jail time);

· Third time convictions: fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, period of 120 days to 12 months (offender must serve 15 days of actual jail time);

· Fourth time convictions: fines ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, a period of imprisonment from one to five years (offender must serve three months of actual jail time).

Georgia State Patrol Officers, as well as local law enforcement officers, will be on high alert for drunk drivers during the Fourth of July holiday.

Staff writer Jay Jones contributed to this report.