By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Only Montana’s drunken driving laws are worse than Michigan’s, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The group recently rated all states, giving Michigan just one star out of five and Montana half of one star. Idaho, Iowa, Rhode Island, South Dakota and Wyoming were tied for third-worst, with one-and-half stars each. No state earned five stars.
Michigan is the only one-star state.
Michigan isn’t using interlock devices enough, isn’t strict enough on people arrested for drunken driving, needs harsher penalties for people who drive drunk with kids in the car and police should be running sobriety checkpoints, according to MADD.
“Unfortunately, it’s in keeping with Michigan’s history,” said Fred Timpner, executive director of the Michigan Association of Police. He cited then-Gov. James Blanchard’s failed attempt to use sobriety checkpoints in the late 1980s as an example.
In 2015, 303 people in Michigan were killed in alcohol-related crashes, according to data from the State Police.
Michigan used to be a two-star state, said Frank Harris, MADD’s director of state government affairs. But the latest report has stricter standards. The state now falls short for not being tough enough on people who drive drunk with kids in the car and for people who refuse breathalyzer tests.
The organization wants people who drive drunk with kids in the car to be charged with felonies instead of misdemeanors. Seven states treat it as a felony.
“Every child deserves a non-drinking designated driver,” Harris said.
Under state law, it takes a second offense for the crime to become a felony, said James Linderman, the Emmet County prosecutor.
When somebody refuses a breathalyzer test, it’s pretty easy for police to get a warrant for a blood or breath test, Harris said.
MADD wants the state to go further and require the use of ignition interlock devices for people who have refused the test. The devices test a driver’s breath for alcohol before the car can be started.
Other areas MADD says Michigan is deficient:
- All convicted drunken driving offenders should have to use ignition interlock devices. Twenty-three states do this now.
- People should lose their licenses as soon as they’re arrested for drunken driving instead of waiting for a court to find them guilty, as is the case in 41 states plus the District of Columbia. Interlock devices should be installed upon arrest as well, as is the case in 10 states.
- Police should run sobriety checkpoints where they check every driver who comes through for signs of drunkenness. Thirty-three states have such checkpoints monthly, according to MADD.
Both legal and logistical reasons keep Michigan from passing some of those laws, county and state officials say.
In the late 1980s, when Blanchard tried to institute sobriety checkpoints, the practice was found unconstitutional by the state’s supreme court, Timpner said.
The use of ignition interlock devices is already required for super-drunk (having blood alcohol content of 0.17 or higher) and repeat offenders.
About 10,000 Michigan drivers use the devices, said Fred Woodhams, deputy communications director at the Secretary of State’s office.
That’s not enough for MADD, which wants to require all convicted drunken drivers to use the devices, not just super-drunk or repeat offenders. MADD gave 23 states stars for following that practice. A bill introduced by Rep. Klint Kesto, R-Commerce Township, in March would make Michigan one of them, but it hasn’t progressed beyond Kesto’s introduction.
More people started using the devices after the Legislature updated laws in March, but the Secretary of State isn’t prepared at this point for a big influx of more interlock users, Woodhams said. The department doesn’t have the staff to accommodate a dramatic increase in users and wants first to see how the current changes perform.
Defense attorneys would love to see expanded use of ignition interlock devices, said Farris F. Haddad, a defense attorney in Troy. The devices are a better option than an escalating cycle of license revocation and punishments for those who drive with a revoked license to get to work to pay their bills, he said.
The devices aren’t cheap. They cost drivers about $1,000 a year, said Bob Cooney, the prosecuting attorney for Grand Traverse County.
As for the administrative revocation of arrestees’ licenses, that’s a matter for the Legislature, Woodhams said.
And the practice would have detractors.
“So much for being ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” Haddad said.
There is a problem with a presumption of innocence, but there may be some legal justification for the revocation of licenses, Cooney said.
“We already do something like that where there’s a penalty prior to conviction,” he said, citing drug testing of people who are released from jail on bond and have not yet been tried.
And revoking suspected drunken drivers’ licenses only goes so far because people drive anyway, said Matt Wiese, the prosecutor for Marquette County.
“You think they don’t drive? They do,” Wiese said. Sobriety and treatment courts are a better approach, he said.
Linderman said lack of access to public transportation in rural areas and the need for money prompt people with suspended licenses to drive.
They need to feed their families, he said.