Lawmakers Push for Stronger DUI Charges When Kids Are in Car

Lawmakers in Connecticut are pushing for tougher drunk driving laws that would increase penalties for adults convicted of drinking and driving with children in their vehicles.

Connecticut is one of a handful of states without a specific Driving While Intoxicated (DWI) child endangerment charge, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  MADD is urging lawmakers to make drunk driving with a child in the car an automatic felony.

43 states and the District of Columbia have enhanced penalties for those who drive drunk with a child passenger in a vehicle, according to MADD.  However, the laws vary widely in severity and definition of a child passenger.

"You're putting that child in danger and there needs to be a punishment that goes along with that crime," said MADD volunteer Skip Church.

Robert Hills, 30, of Connecticut was driving his wife and four young children cross-country last August when he was arrested by the Utah Highway Patrol.  Hills had led pursuing officers on a high-speed chase before officers deployed tire spikes to stop his vehicle.  Hills was charged with failure to respond, obstruction of justice and an enhanced DWI because he had kids in the car.  He pleaded guilty and spent fifty days in jail.

But what would have happened if Hills was arrested for the same thing in his home state of Connecticut?  It's not clear, because there is no enhanced DWI law here.

"We have enough problems with protecting our children in this state and this is one of them that certainly deserves our attention," said Rep. Al Adinolfi (R-103).

Adinolfi is proposing enhanced drunk driving penalties in Connecticut.  His two previous attempts to toughen the laws ran out of time in the state legislature.  Adinolfi's proposal is based on New York's Leandra's Law, which makes it a felony to drive drunk with a child under sixteen and first time offenders face up to four years in prison.

Leandra's Law is named after 11-year-old Leandra Rosado.  She died and six other girls were injured when their driver, who was drunk, flipped their vehicle on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

However, critics like attorney Teresa Dinardi said Connecticut already has laws that accomplish the same goal of tougher penalties.

"Because right now they already get charged with risk of injury, which sounds like that's what they want to do, just call it something else," Dinardi said.

Risk of injury to a minor is a felony.  However, prosecutors have been known to drop that charge for first-time offenders who are eligible for alcohol education programs.

Amber Haaser of Vernon was driving her children on Halloween night, when one of the kids called 9-1-1 for help.  Haaser was charged with a DWI and two counts of risk of injury to a child.  She's due in court Tuesday.  Haaser's public defender said he could not comment on the status of her case.

According to MADD, 211 children under 15 were killed in drunk driving crashes across the country in 2010.  60% of them were passengers of drunk drivers.

"I think we need to get something on the books that deals specifically with child endangerment as it relates to alcohol," Church said.

MADD also wants a possible DWI child endangerment felony to go along with mandatory ignition interlock devices being placed in offenders' cars.

Meantime, one convicted drunk driver who won't be driving child passengers any time soon is Robert Hills.  Last December, Hills was sentenced to one year in prison and three years of probation on separate assault, larceny and trespassing charges in Connecticut.

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