AG pledges 7th attempt to get DUI bills through RI House

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Rhode Island’s attorney general has proposed a group of bills aimed at strengthening DUI laws for the past six years in a row, but none have ever made it to the House floor.

Peter Kilmartin, a Democrat, said that despite the fact that his attempts so far have repeatedly failed, he will introduce the same measures again this year, hoping for a different outcome.

“These statutes, if they get upgraded, will provide deterrence for people, more of deterrence for people to think twice and not drive when they think they may have had too much to drink,” Kilmartin told Eyewitness News.

Attorney General Peter KilmartinIN-DEPTH: Eyewitness News goes one-on-one with AG Kilmartin »

The first of the three bills would double the maximum penalties for DUIs where someone is seriously injured or killed.

The second proposal would create a new criminal offense, driving under the influence resulting in injury.

The last bill applies to suspects charged with their third or subsequent DUI. If approved, it would increase the time a judge can look back at that person’s record from five years to 10 to see if he or she had a previous DUI conviction.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, there are only two states in the country with more lenient drunk driving laws than Rhode Island – Michigan and Montana.

Kilmartin argued his bills would help change that. He spent 20 years as a House lawmaker before becoming the state’s top prosecutor in 2010, but said he’s not sure why lawmakers have failed to pass his proposals year after year.

“You never really know the dynamic behind why a bill passes or doesn’t pass,” he said.

The House Judiciary Committee has held the DUI bills for further study six years in a row, meaning they never came up for a vote in the committee, let alone before the full House. The Senate took action on some of the bills, approving two in in 2014 and one of in 2015.

Rep. Cale Keable, who has chaired the House Judiciary Committee since 2014, said drunk driving is an important issue that affects many lives in a negative way.

But Keable, D-Burrillville, said at the last committee hearing on the attorney general’s bills, members had questions about how they would be implemented.

“Mechanically how that works for the lawyers that actually practice in this field, there was some questions raised about that,” Keable said. “I was surprised when the attorney general’s office wasn’t there to testify on them.”

A Capitol TV recording of the March 2016 hearing confirms that an attorney general staffer, Matthew Lenz, was not there when Keable called on him to testify.

“The attorney general’s office is stretched thin this evening,” Keable reported to the room.

Keable is one of several members of the General Assembly who make a living as an attorney. He said other members of the committee are lawyers as well, but their chosen professions don’t create conflicts of interest.

“I think that’s for good reason, we are dealing with changes in criminal laws in bills so I think it’s a good idea to have some attorneys on that committee,” Keable said.

While Keable himself has represented someone charged with DUI in the past, he said that is not the type of law he practices on a regular basis.

“It was a DUI without any bodily injury; it was not a second or third offense. There was no look-back period involved,” Keable said. “I am not a DUI attorney.”

Kilmartin agreed that it’s an asset to have attorneys sit on the House Judiciary Committee, including defense attorneys who may handle DUI cases.

“I think they have the understanding of the viewpoint of the public defender’s office and I understand that and that’s fine – we have that natural give and take – I have the prosecutorial mindset and they have the defense mindset,” Kilmartin said.

Kilmartin also said he’s always willing to sit down and talk to anyone opposed to his proposals on DUI.

“I do think the time really has come that the legislature should take a serious look at it and understand that we need both the strong enforcement and the strong deterrence,” Kilmartin said.

Kilmartin said it’s also up to Rhode Islanders who are interested in the issue to advocate, suggesting that “the general public needs to be engaged – they need to actually call their legislators and make it a priority.”

The General Assembly began its new session this week, but there’s no word yet on exactly when Kilmartin’s DUI bills will be introduced for the seventh time.

“We look at these bills very carefully and we’ll take a look at them again this year,” Keable said. “New committee, new people, new priorities. The issue of drunk driving is of paramount importance. We’re going to take a very close look at it and make sure we have very fair laws on the books.”