The Associated Press interviewed me recently on new legislation in Springfield that would change parts of the vehicle code. Read the AP story from March 10, 2012.
There is an important lesson about DUI laws in the article.
Representative Jerry Costello, D-Smithton, introduced House Bill 5099 to make it illegal to use a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle within 500 feet of an accident. The new law would also prohibit using a cell phone for photos or video while driving anywhere, anytime.
The problem with the new bill is that apparently it does more than its sponsor had intended.
Reporter Shannon McFarland deserves credit for discovering that the law, because of the language used, would have unintended consequences.
The law would amend 625 ILCS 5/12-610.1 banning cell phone use near the scene of an accident, and 625 ILCS 5/12-610.2. In Section 12-610.2, the law would ban using a cell phone for pictures or video. The lawmaker thought this ban would only be in effect near accidents, but the language used makes it apply at all times. And so, a person could not use a cell phone to take pictures or photos at an intersection to document a crime, accident, or civil rights violation.
This occurrence is all too common in the State House and Senate, where new laws are added to the vehicle code in a random, disorganized way.
DUI laws are no different. The last overhaul of Illinois DUI laws was in 2009. That year, the DUI statute, 625 ILCS 5/11-501, was amended no less than five times for the following issues:
- Class X felony for 6th offense.
- Class 1 felony for 5th offense.
- Mandatory minimum penalties for 0.16 alcohol concentration in blood or breath.
- Mandatory minimum penalties for 2nd offense.
- Class 2 felony for 3rd offense.
In 2009, the vehicle code was printed with 5 different versions of 11-501, and it was not clear which applied.
This may seem like no big deal, but the Illinois Appellate Court disagrees.
In People v. Maldonado, 932 N.E.2d 1038, the defendant was found guilty of his 6th offense of DUI, and the court of appeals ruled that the legislature created a conflict in the law between Public Acts 94-114 and 94-116. One amendment said the defendant should be sentenced as a Class X felony offender (6-30 years prison) while the other said he should be sentenced as a Class 1 felony offender (4-15 years prison).
The rule of lenity says that the court must, as a matter of due process, interpret statutes in a way that lenient towards the defendant. In this case, the court reduced the defendant’s sentence because the more lenient interpretation required a sentence for a Class 1 felony.
And so, while lawmakers were in a contest to see who could be toughest on DUI offenders, their lack of planning caused the very person they were targeting, a 6-time DUI offender, to get his penalty reduced.
The takeaway here is that the law should not be arbitrary or disorganized. More than 80,000 people are arrested for driving under the influence in Illinois each year. In the words of a judge I appeared before recently,
These are people’s lives we are dealing with.
The last thing we need is to pass laws with unintended consequences.