Starting in August, any driver convicted in New York of driving drunk will have to install a device that prevents the car from starting if he or she can't pass a breathalyzer test.
The new requirement was apparently a provision in Leandra’s Law, the legislation passed and signed into law last fall in less than 30 days following the death of a young girl who was a passenger in a car driven by a drunken driver.
Not only will the device be required in the primary car of the convicted drunken driver, but also any car that the driver might even occasionally drive, or have access to drive (work vehicles are exempted).
That means, husband gets convicted of DWI, both his wife's car and his teenage daughter still living at home will need to have the devices installed. The interlock-ignition device is designed to prevent a car from starting if the driver blows a .02 or higher. It will also randomly require a driver to blow in the device as the person is driving to help ensure a friend didn't blow in it to get the car started initially (example photo here).
"Since when do we start punishing innocent people?" said Assistant County Manager Frank V. Ciaccia during the Monday meeting of the Public Safety Committee. "These are people who weren’t convicted of anything. Now every morning they get in a vehicle they’ve got to blow into this thing to get the car to start?"
County officials are most concerned about the additional costs associated with the legislation, which could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
There are some 360 DWI convictions in Genesee County each year, according to County Manager Jay Gsell. Only about 40 percent of those drivers convicted are placed on probation. The rest are given a conditional release.
While those on probation will mean additional supervisory responsibility for the county's probation department, the other 60 percent on conditional release will now require additional supervision for which there is little provision in the county budget to provide.
Additionally, judges will be asked to make a determination -- based on state-provided guidelines -- on whether a convicted drunken driver can afford the device. If he can't, the county will pick up the tab.
Each device costs $100 to install and $100 per month to maintain.
In Genesee County, there could be as many as 450 to 500 of these devices installed, and nobody can estimate at this time how many will be paid for by taxpayers.
Funded or not, all will need to be monitored by county probation, Genesee Justice or some other county agency (the new law doesn't specify who will be responsible for monitoring compliance).
Gsell said Assembly and Senate representatives throughout the state are crying ignorance of these new provisions -- they just thought they were cracking down on drunken drivers with kids in the car.
"What apparently most of the legislators did not know is that this law went beyond just DWIs with a 15-year-old or younger in their car," Gsell said. "It applies to all DWIs. None of the legislators we've talked to understood when we've asked them to please look at this. They were clueless almost to a statewide unanimous number."
It's hard to believe, though, that legislators in Albany weren't fully aware of these provisions. The bill, Govenor's Program Bill 204 (pdf), is only 25 pages long with all of the new provisions conveniently underlined. Most of code section being amended deals with ignition locks and the new language clearly specifies both the "owner or operator" aspect and numerous times the additional phrase "conditional release" is added. The only way to miss its full scope, is to not read the bill at all.
Even if a legislator just read the cover memo (pdf), the first paragraph clearly states, "In addition, this bill requires all individuals convicted of a misdemeanor or felony DWI offense to install and maintain an interlock device."
Julie Smith, director of County Probation, said the devices are effective deterrents to drunken driving -- there are a few in use in the county now -- but it's unclear how much of an extra burden the revised law will put on her department. She also pointed out that all enforcement action the courts and probation take are based on statistical evidence about risk levels and the nature of the crimes. This new law doesn't make those distinctions.
“Here we have something that uses no evidence based practice," Smith said. "Whether it’s your first DWI or your fifth, you’re getting it.”
Gsell said that while there may be complaints about spouses being required to blow into a machine to start their cars, the loudest complaints will when somebody who was supposed to be prevented from driving, manages to drive drunk anyway.
"When someone doesn’t get the notification (the device manufacturer may not be able to notify the county of a device failure for five to 10 days), and two days after it failed to operate, disables the device and goes out, still gets drunk, still kills someone -- that’s when all hell is going to break loose," Gsell said.
The committee asked that a resolution asking for the law to be amended be presented at Wednesday's Ways and Means Committee meeting.
Such a resolution would mirror what is happening elsewhere in the state, where county legislatures, as they learn about the law, are taking steps to oppose some of its provisions. Examples can be found in Greene County and Essex County.
Legislator Jay Grasso, a former Sheriff's deputy, said he made more than 300 DWI arrests in his law enforcement career, but he doesn't see the need to put these devices in the cars of first-time, misdemeanor DWI offenders.
“I have no objection, in theory, to an interlock device for the multiple offender, for the felony offender," Grasso said. "To do this for that first-time offender – and I’m not excusing them, because I certainly locked them all up – who goes to the wine tasting, who goes to the carnival, and has a few too many and gets arrested, he's not gong to be your repeat offender. But that multiple guy, yeah, let’s put the interlock device on him."
Legislator Ray Cianfrini wanted to know if there was any way the county could just not enforce this "unfunded mandate," but, he was told, there's probably no way around it.
“This is a perfect example of a good law gone wild," Cianfrini said. "I’m so angry when I hear this now."
Pictured are Julie Smith and Frank Ciaccia