DUI Bills Progress in State Senate Judiciary Committee

April 18, 2008

The State Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation that would add vehicular homicide as a result of the driver's intoxication and aggravated vehicular homicide to offenses requiring mandatory sentencing. The bill requires those convicted to serve 100 percent of the sentence imposed by the court, less sentence credits earned, which assures that at least 85 percent will be behind bars.

The bill was sponsored after the death of David Hudson, of Piney Flats, who was hit crossing a Johnson City street in December by a man whose blood alcohol level was nearly twice the legal limit. The man, who was charged with vehicular and aggravated vehicular homicide, had four previous DUI convictions dating back to 1989.

Judiciary Chairman Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) who also support the measure said, “We must get these repeat offenders off our roads. We have several bills before our General Assembly this year that would provide comprehensive reform of our DUI laws.”

Also approved by the Judiciary Committee was a bill that would increase DUI fines by $250. Part of the money would be kept in the local communities where the crime occurred for housing offenders or law enforcement needs. The other half would be used for alcohol or drug addiction treatment. The bill is expected to provide $1.5 million to the state and $1.5 million to local governments.

Finally, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed legislation to ban open containers of alcohol in vehicles. The bill, sponsored by Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet) would allow Tennessee to have control over $12 million in federal highway funds, which the state does not currently have due to not being in compliance with federal safety laws.

“The law presently on the books is merely an invitation for someone to drink and drive as long as there’s a passenger that they can ‘pass the bottle’ to if they get pulled over by law enforcement,” said Beavers. “This legislation will provide safety for our citizens and help us access needed road funds.”

Two bills stiffening penalties for crimes against law enforcement officers were approved this week in the Senate Judiciary Committee. One bill would provide that a killing of a law enforcement officer during perpetration of a felony would be elevated to first degree murder under the felony murder rule, making it a death penalty offense.

The bill would apply to cases, like one in involving the shooting of Trooper Calvin Jenks, who was shot and killed while conducting a traffic stop near the intersection of Highways 14 and 54 in Tipton County. During the stop, Trooper Jenks smelled marijuana from the vehicle and was told by the driver that there were drugs in the center console. When he asked the passenger if he had any drugs, the man produced a handgun and opened fire, striking Trooper Jenks once in the head and once in the body.

The second bill, sponsored by Senator Beavers would create a new felony offense for assault on an officer.

Both bills would apply in cases of the intentional killing of an officer. It also applies to cases where the officer was killed in the line of duty.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved legislation requiring those convicted of aggravated robbery or especially aggravated robbery offenses to serve 100 percent of the sentence, less sentence reduction credits of up to 15 percent to keep them on the straight and narrow while in jail. Senator Beavers said the bill is modeled after a Florida law passed in 1999 that significantly reduced armed robberies after its implementation. Currently, those convicted of armed robbery in Tennessee are eligible for release after serving 30 percent of their sentence.

The committee heard testimony from Mary Anne Purcell, whose fiancé was killed last fall in an armed robbery of the Nashville restaurant he managed. The killer and his accomplice got away with only $200. Purcell said current sentences are ineffective to deter the crime. She said the brief jail time served by most are a “slap on the wrist” and often embolden gang members to continue a life of crime, as their status is raised by serving time behind bars.

“We must address the serious crime of armed robbery,” said Senator Beavers. “Our current laws are not working as a deterrent. This legislation would keep these criminals off the streets and protect our citizens.”

Spring Sales Tax Holiday begins Friday, April 25

Tennessee’s spring sales tax holiday is set to begin at 12:01 on Friday, April 25 and will end at 11:59 on Sunday, April 27. During this designated three-day weekend, consumers may purchase selected clothing, school supplies and computers without paying Tennessee’s state and local sales tax on the items. It applies to clothing priced $100 or less per item and computers priced $1,500 or less. This holiday also includes purchases of qualified items sold via mail, telephone, e-mail, or Internet if the customer orders and pays for the item and the retailer accepts the order during the exemption period for immediate shipment, even if delivery is made after the exemption period.

“I hope that as many people as possible will take advantage of this sales tax holiday,” said Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet). “It will hopefully provide a boost to the economy, while helping our citizens enjoy some tax relief.”

Senator Beavers sponsored the bill in 2007 that created this sales tax holiday and also reduced the sales tax on food by .05%.

Details about the state's special Sales Tax Holiday are available at the state’s dedicated Web site, www.tntaxholiday.com. The Tennessee Department of Revenue also offers assistance to consumers via e-mail, Salestax.Holiday@state.tn.us, and through its toll-free statewide telephone hot line, (800) 342-1003. Staff is available to answer questions Monday through Friday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Central Time. (Out-of-state and Nashville-area callers, please dial (615) 253-0600.)

Issues in Brief

Notary public – The Senate Judiciary Committee approved legislation this week to require any person who is a notary public to be a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident.

Lethal injection ruling – The U.S. Supreme court has cleared the way for states to carryout their death penalty statues with a ruling on Wednesday that lethal injection does not violate the U.S. Constitution. Tennessee had stayed executions while the nation’s high court considered the Baze v. Rees case that claimed lethal injection was “cruel and unusual.” The legislature has worked diligently to address barriers to carrying out the death sentence and for restoration of Tennessee’s death penalty law by changing the method of execution from electrocution to lethal injection during the 1998 session. Before that time, the state has not executed a prisoner convicted of capital crimes in 38 years. Edward Jerome Harbison had been scheduled to die in January for the beating death of an elderly woman. The execution of Paul Dennis Reid, who was sentenced to death for multiple fast food restaurant killings, was also stayed due to the Supreme Court case.

Handgun permits – Legislation that would send $15 of the handgun permit fee to county sheriffs, who must do a background check on applicants, passed the Senate Finance Committee this week. The sheriffs have been conducting the background checks without being reimbursed by the state while extra money collected above the cost of processing the permit has been accumulating in a reserve account. Testimony in the committee revealed that $5.5 million has gone into a reserve account due to excess charges of the $115 initial handgun permit fee.

Sex offenders – The Judiciary committee voted to approve legislation that requires sex offenders to report to Tennessee’s Sexual Offender Registry all name changes or names different than those listed on their original registration form. The bill would make it clear that sex offenders cannot change their name to skirt the law regarding sex offender registry requirements.

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