2021 Bills

HB 20: DUI Penalty Enhancements

To track the status of this bill, find it on our Legislation Tracker. Click here to contact the sponsor of the bill to share your thoughts, or click here to email your Senator and Representative about it.

Libertas Institute opposes this bill

Staff review of the legislation finds that it violates our principles and must therefore be opposed.

Driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol is a serious offense, and it is treated as such under present law, with major fines, jail time, a criminal record, driver’s license suspension, and drug testing requirements, to name a few of the current punishments. Plus, Utah has the nation’s lowest blood alcohol content (BAC) threshold in the nation: anything at or above .05 BAC is considered a DUI. Yet, some still believe the penalties for a DUI should be harsher.

Representative Steve Eliason is sponsoring House Bill 20 to accomplish this. The bill is concerning to us in that it raises penalties tremendously for many different DUI offenses, even though little evidence can prove that more punitive measures result in safer roads, which is the ultimate goal of the bill.

Under this legislation, if an individual is guilty, on a first-time offense, of one of the following:

  1. .16 BAC or higher; or
  2. .05 BAC or higher in addition to any measurable controlled substance; or,
  3. a combination of two or more controlled substances (excluding medical marijuana prescription)

then they must be jailed for five days (up from the current two-day penalty), or two days in jail with 30 days of home confinement with electronic monitoring and drug testing (rather than the current 2-day compensatory service requirement as a jail alternative). Aside from how punitive these measures are, a major problem with this language has to do with the controlled substances.

Cannabis can stay in a person’s system for days after it acts as an active metabolite, meaning even when the individual feels no effect, it can show up on a drug test. This means, if a person is caught at .05 and has traces of marijuana in their system, they will go to jail for almost triple the amount of time that they would currently, or they would get 2 days plus lengthy and expensive home confinement which is simply not realistic or affordable for many people. For such a serious penalty enhancement, judges should have more latitude on how to properly penalize defendants according to the unique circumstances of their case, rather than throwing the book at them because of harsh statutory blanket requirements.

The “two or more controlled substance” trigger is also a problem because of the science behind how a drug metabolizes. Both meth and cocaine, for example, have active metabolites that may either be evidence of a different drug. or of the cocaine breaking down into active metabolites which can show up on a drug test as more than one substance. Hopefully, judges would be able to discern this, but with a strict reading of the statute, they may feel no other choice but to choose the much harsher penalties this bill requires.

The next part of the bill says a person 21 or older is guilty of a separate Class A misdemeanor for each person under the age of 16 in the vehicle at the time of the DUI offenses listed above. If a person has two individuals 16 or younger, they would be guilty of three DUI’s under this bill.

The bill also penalizes repeat offenders by massively increasing the penalties for those who already have a DUI on their record from the past 10 years. After a first time DUI, the penalty for:

  1. .16 BAC or higher; or
  2. .05 BAC or higher in addition to any measurable controlled substance; or,
  3. a combination of two or more controlled substances (excluding medical marijuana prescription)

would now be either a jail sentence of 20 days (up from the current 10) or 10 days of jail time (up from the current five) in addition to 60 days (up from 30) of home confinement with electronic monitoring and drug testing. The same problems exist for this model, as listed above for first-time offenders.

Our next major concern with this bill is surrounding a portion that removes judicial discretion in cases where an individual lapses in a court-ordered 24/7 sobriety program. HB 20 dictates that if the individual fails the program, they must be sent to jail in addition to a number of other penalties outlined in the statute. We believe it should be the judge’s decision on the principle that the legislature simply can’t think of every circumstance as to why the individual failed the program. But a judge sees every case, evaluates them, and can give proper recommendations based on their training, rather than a blanket penalty for DUI cases, no matter how different they are.