GREENSBORO — North Carolina could become the 15th state to require ignition interlock devices for anyone convicted of driving while impaired if one of two drunken-driving bills becomes law.
The other bill would close a loophole that treats some of the state’s worst repeat drunken drivers much like first-time offenders.
Ignition interlock devices test a person’s blood-alcohol level before allowing a vehicle to start. Current law requires the devices for many repeat offenders and some first-time offenders found to have a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.15 percent, nearly double the legal driving limit of 0.08 percent.
House Bill 43, sponsored by state Rep. Darren Jackson, would require the ignition interlock devices after any DWI.
Jackson, D-Wake, said he expects resistance to the change. His bill is on hold while legislative staffers study its potential cost, he said. It has bipartisan support, with 10 co-sponsors.
Fourteen states, including Virginia, require ignition locks after all DWIs, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
House Bill 31, which would change the way habitual DWI is determined, is tied to a Forsyth County case from the early 1980s in which a drunken driver killed a Walkertown couple and their 8-month old granddaughter.
Despite numerous DWI charges since the killings and two prison sentences, the driver — Lance A. Snyder — is not considered a habitual DWI offender under state law.
The state requires a person to receive four DWIs within 10 years to qualify as a habitual offender. Snyder was in prison a combined 17 years.
The legislation would require four DWI charges in 10 years or a previous habitual conviction, regardless of the timing. The bill has 22 sponsors in the state House, including Republican Debra Conrad and Democrat Ed Hanes Jr. of Forsyth County.
Snyder, 53, served about six years for second-degree murder in the 1980s. He was in and out of court on DWI charges in the early 1990s, then received a 40-year maximum sentence in 1993 on a habitual felon conviction in Guilford County.
He was released on parole in April 2010, according to state prison records. He has been charged with another DWI in Forsyth County and is scheduled to be in court in March, according to the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office. He went to prison this week on a separate 2011 DWI charge in Guilford County, said James Swisher, his attorney. That sentence will run for a year and could be extended by the Forsyth County charge.
Prison sentences are rare for first or second DWI convictions, but in some ways the law treated Snyder as if this were his first or second offense because the 10-year window expired while he was in prison.
The yearlong sentence was handed down in Snyder’s latest case because his driver’s license was never reinstated from his previous charges, but he’s not considered a habitual offender. That would have meant a minimum of a year in prison and a maximum of nearly five years, Swisher said.
It’s not clear how often this 10-year window closes for habitual drunken drivers. State sentencing rules have changed significantly since Snyder’s convictions in the early ‘90s, and lengthy sentences like his aren’t cut so short by parole, Guilford County Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann said.
But Neumann said he doesn’t know how often the loophole affects DWI sentences. Neither did Forsyth County Assistant District Attorney Aaron Berlin, who handles DWI cases.
LaRonda Scott, the state executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving , said the organization is supporting the bill.
“We feel it’s an important bill and is ultimately going to protect our families from drunk driving,” she said.