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Our precious loss: DUI statutes toughened, judicial tolerance lowered

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By Sarah Bennett

If a Kentucky resident was found driving under the influence on intoxicants in 1988, there was no mandatory jail time or alcohol and drug education. According to officials, license suspension was significantly reduced or waived if an offender sought treatment.

Locally, one out of five motorists who were presumed to be under the influence of alcohol in 1988 received lesser charges than a DUI, according to The News-Enterprise archives.

In the fall of ’88, just a few months after the church bus crash near Carrollton, the Hardin County Attorney’s Office filed a series of motions to set aside more than 30 DUI cases because of improper procedures.

These cases were dismissed or amended by defense motions, but by a judge’s order, they ultimately were reset and prosecuted.

However, the state has made significant changes in its DUI statute since the bus crash.

Following the fiery crash on Interstate 71, Gov. Wallace G. Wilkinson formed a Driving Under the Influence Committee to examine the state’s DUI law.

When the National Transportation Safety Board issued its crash report a year later, one of the safety issues cited in the report was “the effectiveness of the driving-under-the-influence program in Kentucky.”

Larry Mahoney’s blood alcohol level was 0.24, nearly 2.5 times what was presumed intoxicated in 1988. Furthermore, in 1984, he pleaded guilty to a DUI, but his license was not suspended because he choose to attend alcohol and drug education, the NTSB reported.

Ultimately, the NTSB recommended implementing the suggestions made by the governor’s committee to improve the state’s DUI law as well as expanding the use of preliminary breath test devices, field sobriety tests and sobriety checkpoints.

By 1991, Wilkinson signed House Bill 11 into law, which contained major changes to Kentucky’s DUI statute, according to Hardin County Attorney Jenny Oldham.

“Carrollton shined a lot of light on how DUI cases were being handled,” she said.

Among the largest revisions, she said, was a penalty for refusing a breath test, mandatory alcohol and drug education and a “per se” clause.

A blood alcohol level of 0.08 or more — or 0.10 in 1991— as determined by a scientifically reliable test is in itself driving under the influence, Oldham said.

“Before, you had to prove someone was under the influence by several factors,” she said.

In 1996, the state added an under-21 DUI offense, and in 2010, the statute was expanded to include controlled substances, Oldham said.

In 2000, the blood alcohol limit was lowered to 0.08 and a two-hour window for police testing was implemented.

That same year, aggravating circumstances were added to the DUI statute, Oldham said.

Included in those aggravators are driving in excess of 30 miles per hour more than the speed limit, driving a vehicle that causes a wreck resulting in death or serious physical injury and traveling in “the wrong direction on a limited access highway,” according to Kentucky Revised Statutes.

Sarah Bennett can be reached at (270) 505-1750 or sbennett@thenewsenterprise.com.