February 23, 2011
Virginia lawmakers are sending a strong message to underage motorists in Virginia who choose to not only break the law by consuming alcohol but who also choose to get behind the wheel with even a trace of alcohol in their system.
Senate Bill 770 and House Bill 1407 have both received unanimous support from lawmakers. The bills seek to make underage drinking and driving punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor, mandate the loss of a driver’s license for one year and impose a mandatory fine of $500 or a minimum of 50 hours of community service. The current law calls for a Class 2 misdemeanor, license forfeiture for only six months and gives the judge the option of punishing and offender with the $500 fine or community service.
In addition to keeping drunk drivers off of the roadways and saving lives, there is a disparity among laws governing underage possession of alcohol and driving under the influence (DUI) in Virginia. The punishment for underage possession of alcohol is harsher than the one for underage drinking and driving, an inequity that Senator Dave Marsden (D-37) is trying to correct.
“This law will equate underage DUI with the penalties for possession. The world will now make sense,” Marsden said.
Delegate Bill Janis, sponsor of the legislation in the House of Delegates agreed.
“With the passage of this legislation, the Virginia code will no longer send mixed messages to young people about the relative seriousness of under age drinking and driving. Now the penalties in Virginia law for operating a motor vehicle underage and under the influence will be as severe as the current penalties for simply possessing alcohol underage.”
AAA Mid-Atlantic has come out in full support of the new law.
“The stronger DUI laws are, the more they will serve as a deterrent to the dangerous act of getting behind the wheel drunk,” said Martha Mitchell Meade, Manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “We want to eliminate any decision or consideration by those under 21 who may have been drinking. We want getting behind the wheel after consuming any alcohol to be something any driver would simply never consider.”
Similar bills have been proposed before, according to the senator; however, there was a belief among lawmakers that Virginia could lose federal grant money for criminalizing this status offense. A “status” offense is one which punishes younger offenders but does not do the same for adults.