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story.lead_photo.caption Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, is shown in this file photo. ( NWA Democrat-Gazette file photo / Flip Putthoff)

Legislation that would have changed Arkansas' drunken-driving law failed to clear a House committee Tuesday, after drawing support from public defenders, receiving opposition from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and creating a split among state prosecutors.

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday had scheduled a special order of business to consider House Bill 1294. That usually signals a sharp divide in opinions. The bill, by state Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, aimed to give prosecutors discretion to dismiss or reduce drunken-driving charges.

Arkansas is the only state in the country that requires a person charged with a DWI offense to be taken to trial in all circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The law does not include an exception if a prosecutor does not find probable cause. Both law enforcement officials and public defenders testified Tuesday that the law has led to cases in which the prosecutor is forced to take a case to trial, only to refuse to present any evidence in expectation that the judge will dismiss the charge.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

One such case, reportedly involving Della Rosa's housekeeper, led the lawmaker to seek a change in the law.

"I think it's a waste of the court's time, I think it's a waste of the public defender's time," Della Rosa said, adding that the law also costs defendants money if they chose to hire private attorneys.

"Not one state is as harsh as we are," she added.

But Teresa Belew of MADD and the Arkansas Impaired Driving Prevention Task Force, said she was proud that Arkansas has the "strongest" anti-plea bargaining rules, which she called "the cornerstone of Arkansas' omnibus DWI law." The law was enacted in 1983.

Since the law took effect, Belew said, the number of deaths caused by drunken-driving accidents has fallen quicker than in the rest of the nation as a whole.

Sandy Varner, a mother from Texarkana whose son was killed by a drunken boater in Oklahoma, said giving prosecutors more discretion over DWI and drunken-boating charges could let officials cover up charges.

"I fear [the charges] would be swept under the rug or reduced to nothing more than a reckless driving charge," Varner said.

Arkansas State Police Director Bill Bryant and members of the Arkansas Association of Chiefs of Police spoke out against the bill. However, no prosecutors spoke out for or against it.

Bob McMahon, the Arkansas prosecutor coordinator, said state prosecutors were split over the bill.

The committee of lawmakers, after hearing debate, took no action. Because the bill failed to receive any motion, it effectively died in committee.

Afterward, Della Rosa expressed doubts that the bill could be amended to satisfy opponents' concerns. She told a reporter that she had not yet decided whether she would attempt to revive the bill.

A Section on 02/27/2019

Print Headline: Bill to change DWI law in state fails in committee

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Archived Comments

  • Libertarian
    February 27, 2019 at 7:17 a.m.

    So many of our laws are so draconian, they seem only intended to feed the prison industry. I think the DWI laws should be on a sliding scale.

  • MBAIV
    February 27, 2019 at 8:18 a.m.

    Having been hit by a drunk driver some years ago, I have no sympathy for DWI drivers (and now for phone/texting drivers). The current laws were passed because there were way too many "friends and family" discounts being given by law enforcement and prosecutors. If the driver is drunk, is there ever any reason not to charge them? We already let them get 3 DWIs before the 4th is supposed to send them to prison. Should we just let them go until they kill someone?

  • Doug
    February 27, 2019 at 9:39 a.m.

    Why not reward sellers. & servers for doing the right thing by checking IDs & prevention of illegal sales with fines against minors attempting to purchase instead of trying to entrap them?

  • hah406
    February 27, 2019 at 9:40 a.m.

    I absolutely think DWI laws need to be strong, but a requirement to take all of them to trial is a ridiculous waste of money, time, and resources. Why should a prosecutor be forced to take a case to trial when he determines that no probable cause exists and will not be presenting any evidence? That is just stupid.

  • jwheelii
    February 27, 2019 at 9:57 a.m.

    "The law does not include an exception if a prosecutor does not find probable cause."
    If there is no probable cause, what is the point?
    I have no sympathy for drunk drivers, and police should check out those whose actions indicate possible impairment. But if the stop does not find further evidence of impairment, then there is no need to arrest and try.

  • MBAIV
    February 27, 2019 at 9:59 a.m.

    hah406 - If the driver has been stopped and a breath, field or blood test shows impairment - and the driver is charged --- why not go to court? If there is no probably cause, the driver shouldn't have been stopped or tested. Seems pretty easy -- they are not talking about just charging drivers at random on the street. The arrest starts with some sort of probably cause. Do you want PD to just ignore the facts so that folks don't have to get charged?

  • hah406
    February 27, 2019 at 11:01 a.m.

    MBAIV, my point is that there HAVE been numerous cases dismissed for a lack of probable cause. I don't know where you live, but around Little Rock and Fayetteville the police stop people all the time with no probable cause that they were impaired. Of course, if they fail any test in the field like a breathalyzer, blood, or field sobriety test, they should be arrested and charged and go to trial. I am not trying to sound easy on drunk drivers. I want the state to balance safety with the constitutional right to due process and the avoidance of unwarranted prosecution.

  • GeneralMac
    February 27, 2019 at 1:10 p.m.

    No sympathy for drunk drivers but MADD has gone after INNOCENT people in the past and ruined their reputation.

  • Foghorn
    February 27, 2019 at 1:55 p.m.

    The only way we’ll make headway against DUI is to employ technology: make breathalyzers mandatory in all cars. Blow over the limit and you’re left w/no alternative but to call Uber.

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