Federal bill seeks to close DUI loophole following Briarcrest crash

Federal bill seeks to close DUI loophole following Briarcrest crash
Published: May. 17, 2016 at 2:24 PM CDT|Updated: May. 18, 2016 at 1:57 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - The Briarcrest faithful will take their fight to Washington.

Tuesday, Tennessee U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Ohio U.S. Rep.Steve Chabot (R-OH) introduced the DUI Reporting Act of 2016. The bill would withhold federal funding for crime-fighting equipment and programs from states who fail to mandate the reporting of all DUI arrest and conviction records to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), the criminal record database inside every squad car in America.

"It is shameful that all DUI arrests are not reported to the national crime database," said Rep. Cohen. "The consequences of this lack of reporting can prove life-threatening. Our bill would allow for the withholding of federal funds for overtime of officers, for DUI breath analyzer equipment, for squad cars, for law enforcement communications equipment (or) for prosecution budgets."

The measure is in response to the May 31, 2015 DUI crash on Highway 78 in Marshall County, Mississippi, that killed Briarcrest Christian School students Maddie Kruse and Rachel Lynch, 17 and 16. 33-year-old Melandus Penson of Belden, Mississippi, was out on bond for his sixth DUI when he crashed into and killed the girls. WMC Action News 5 Investigator Andy Wise discovered Penson carried five DUI convictions at the time of the crash. Each was for first-offense DUI.

That's because three Mississippi county court jurisdictions and one municipal court jurisdiction failed to report their DUI records on Penson to the NCIC. When police officers checked the NCIC at the point of arrest, Penson's history was missing. Officers had no choice but to continually charge Penson with first-offense DUI, enabling lighter penalties and looser bond conditions that allowed Penson back on the roads again and again. Penson has since been convicted and sentenced to 60 years in prison.

"It's unfortunate that Mississippi, where this accident in fact occurred, didn't do more," Cohen said.

"This is the way to go," said former WMC Action News 5 Chief Meteorologist Dave Brown of Cohen's proposal. Brown, who lost his daughter, granddaughter and unborn son to a repeat DUI offender, said withholding federal funds from states who fail in DUI enforcement has been a successful legislative strategy in the past.

"This is the way (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) got .08 to become the de facto standard nationwide for blood-alcohol concentration," Brown said. "Follow the money. If this bill passes, this is fabulous."

"It is vitally important that law enforcement officers, who are on the front lines of the battle to eliminate drunk driving, know of all past offenses when charging a suspected drunk driver," said Frank Harris, director of MADD's state government affairs. "MADD applauds the initiatives of Representatives Cohen and Chabot to equip law enforcement and prosecutors with this important tool to identify and prosecute repeat drunk drivers to the fullest extent of the law."

Neither the Lynch family nor the Kruse family was available for comment on Cohen's proposal. Both of their girls would have graduated from Briarcrest this week.

Cody Holden is the father of Kara Holden, one of the girls' friends who was injured in the crash. "(Withholding federal funds) would definitely help to speed things up on a state level, but I wonder if it would pass," Holden wrote in an email. "Asking a U.S. congressman to vote on a bill to withhold federal money from his/her state would be like asking a duck to swim in a puddle instead of a pond. Then again, the federal government got the drinking age up to 21 by threatening to withhold federal funding for roads, so why not give it a try?"

Tennessee passed legislation this year to mandate every DUI arrest ticket be turned over to the NCIC within seven days and every conviction record be forwarded to the national database within five days. But the Tennessee law's language left some lee-way to limit liability on law enforcement. "I ran into resistance on this," said Tennessee State Rep. Mark White (R-East Memphis, Germantown). "The police association (was) afraid of liability if for some reason an officer could not comply, so we settled for language that said as long as every effort was made (to report an arrest to the NCIC)."

Mississippi state legislators failed to mandate an overhaul of its NCIC reporting system, even though the IT director of the state's department of public safety conceded last November that his agency could be instantly sharing Mississippi's DUI convictions with the NCIC by October 2016. They did manage to pass a $100 civil penalty on court clerks who fail to forward DUI convictions to the department of public safety within five days.

"(Overhauling Mississippi's DUI reporting system) was my most important priority this legislative session," Mississippi State Sen. David Parker (R-Olive Branch) said. "It will continue to be my priority one going forward."

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