By Jessica Wetzler
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Leaders in the fight against drunken driving were appalled after a Senate bill flew under the radar and quietly passed with a 37-3 vote, allowing Virginians to lawfully drive while intoxicated on their own property.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, originally introduced SB 308 to clarify that the state law against driving under the influence applies only to public roadways and that people can't be charged for drinking in a vehicle on their property. Existing law simply says you can't operate a motor vehicle while intoxicated and does not distinguish between public and private property.
During the Senate Courts of Justice Committee meeting on Jan. 31, the Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys and advocacy organizations spoke against the bill.
"Is a driver with a .14 BAC (blood alcohol content) operating a motor vehicle across Kings Dominion's parking lot any less of a threat than if he or she were similarly doing so on a neighboring roadway?" asked Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program.
SB 308 was then essentially killed, or passed by indefinitely, on a 7-5 vote.
Although thought to be dead, the legislation was abruptly brought up for reconsideration by Sen. Mark Peake, R-Lynchburg, halfway through a committee meeting on Monday. Peake had voted to kill the bill at the previous meeting.
After speaking with members of the committee and Waynesboro Commonwealth's Attorney David Ledbetter, Stuart said he wanted to change the language of the bill.
"The bill had to do with a DUI on your private property or current property. And by trying to define where you could actually be charged with it, I think my bill went a little too broad," Stuart said.
By narrowly defining the bill to exempt getting charged with DWI at home or other private property, it would eliminate cases of those found drinking in a parked car in their driveway, Stuart said.
Ledbetter said he made the suggestion to Stuart about changing the language, but remained unsure it would be successful.
"I'm afraid we are going to exempt someone that we should not," Ledbetter said.
The legislation was approved 14-1 by the committee, with only Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Bath, voting against it. The legislation had been changed to add: "This section shall not apply to any person driving or operating a motor vehicle on his own residential property or the curtilage thereof," essentially allowing people to lawfully drive drunk on their own property.
"Inasmuch, the bill throws Virginia down the slippery slope of bifurcating the state's DUI laws, effectively communicating that it's OK to drive drunk here but not there – a dangerous precedent," Erickson said. "The Virginia Association of Commonwealth's Attorneys and Washington Regional Alcohol Program remain opposed to this legislation."
The bill flew through its second and third reading and passed the Senate three days after it was resurrected.