Cops are cracking down on drunken driving this week and next, just as a new law aimed at chronic repeat offenders goes into effect July 1.
"Operation Zero Tolerance" will involve concentrated patrols and road safety checks by the Georgia State Patrol, Gainesville Police Department, Hall County Sheriff’s Office and dozens of other law enforcement agencies across the state. The anti-DUI campaign began Friday and ends July 6.
Gainesville police Sgt. Dean Staples said DUI statistics kept by his officers during that 17-day period will be forwarded to the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, which compiles statewide numbers for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those numbers are used to determine federal funding for equipment, safety education and road improvements, Staples said.
Driving under the influence arrests generally pick up during the summer months, Staples said.
"There’s lake traffic and more parties in general because of the weather," he said.
Under a new law effective July 1, a fourth DUI in 10 years will be prosecuted as a felony.
Driving under the influence is currently a misdemeanor, though a person can be convicted of felony habitual violator if they are caught driving after their third DUI conviction in five years.
Hall County Solicitor-General Larry Baldwin said the new "four in 10" statute should serve to strengthen current DUI laws.
In order to convict a driver of felony driving as a habitual violator, the prosecution has to prove that the offender was served notice of his status following his third DUI conviction.
"Sometimes if they got their DUI in a small town in south Georgia, they don’t get served (with habitual violator status)," Baldwin said. That can be "problematic" when prosecuting repeat DUI offenders, he said.
George Creal Jr., an Atlanta attorney who specializes in DUI cases, said the new "four in 10" law may end up giving offenders less time behind bars than the old, misdemeanor prosecutions in state court."In most courts, if you get four DUIs in 10 years, they will be looking at ways to stack you up with jail time," Creal said. That could mean sentencing an offender to the maximum year in jail for every offense. If a repeat DUI offender is found guilty of five offenses in state court, he could get five years in jail, Creal said. Jail has no parole, though many counties have "good time" policies that shorten the length of time served.
Creal suggests that under current state pardon and parole board policies, offenders who are sentenced to prison for felony DUI with a maximum sentence of five years may serve only nine months before they’re paroled.
"Maybe the parole board will make an exception for DUIs, otherwise you’re looking at less than a year (in prison)," Creal said. "Whereas, if you went to state court with four DUIs in 10 years, who knows? More than likely you will see people getting out sooner than if they were prosecuted in state court."
Baldwin, the prosecutor, says he is hopeful that the thought of a felony conviction will deter a three-time DUI offender from driving drunk again.
"I hope it will have somewhat of a deterrent effect, if they realize that they get a fourth DUI, it will be a felony," Baldwin said. "Anything that strengthens DUI law in Georgia, I’m in favor of."