MEMPHIS, TN (WMC) - Mississippi and Tennessee lawmakers worked Tuesday to strengthen punishments for first-time DUI offenders.
The Mississippi House of Representatives passed a bill that would mandate ignition interlock devices for 120 days on first-time DUI offenders while out on bond. The bill would also extend their drivers license suspensions from 90 days to 180 days.
The ignition interlock device is installed into the ignition assembly on the steering column. It is a breathalyzer installed in the drunk-driving offender's car. The offender must blow into the breathalyzer and be below the legal limit for the car to start.
"The bill requires ignition interlocks for all drunk drivers who seek driving privileges during a license suspension period," said Frank Harris, national director of state government affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). "It also adds a critical element called 'compliance-based removal,' which requires validation of driving on an interlock before receiving unlimited driving privileges."
The legislation would also require every Mississippi court clerk to share DUI offenders' conviction records, also their active and open DUI arrests, immediately with state authorities or else face misdemeanor charges.
Just hours before the Mississippi house vote, a Tennessee house committee passed a virtually identical measure. It would mandate the ignition interlock on second-time DUI offenders regardless of any prior conviction and require the immediate sharing of an offender's DUI arrest and conviction history with every Tennessee court and judge.
"So that the judge knows the multiple arrests of the person who is before them," Tennessee State Rep. Mark White said. White is the chief sponsor of the bill. "If the judge doesn't know, all he can give them is a first-offense."
Melandus Penson, 32, of Belden, Mississippi, carried five convictions for first offense DUI and was out on bond for his sixth DUI last May when he slammed into a van on Highway 78 in Marshall County, Mississippi. The van was carrying four Briarcrest Christian School students on their way to a beach trip. The crash killed students Maddie Kruse and Rachel Lynch, both 17. Penson was charged with two counts of DUI Death. Marshall County authorities are holding him on a $3 million bond. He faces trial March 28.
Records revealed three Mississippi counties and one municipality failed to share Penson's DUI arrest history with the Mississippi Department of Public Safety and, in turn, the FBI's National Crime Information Center (NCIC). The NCIC is the crime database inside every squad car in America. Since Penson's history was missing from the NCIC, officers who arrested him had no choice but to charge him each time with first offense DUI.
Kara Holden, 18, one of the students who survived the crash that killed Kruse and Lynch, testified before a Tennessee house subcommittee Feb. 23, pleading for the mandatory reporting of DUI arrests and convictions to the NCIC. A WMC Action News 5 investigation revealed 18 of Tennessee's 95 counties do not share their DUI arrest or conviction records either with the state's crime database or with the NCIC.
"We must share DUI arrests and convictions through appropriate measures," Holden said. "Only then can we take the first steps to stop multiple DUI offenders from being on the road. How many more lives is it going to take?"
Both state legislatures are considering multiple measures for tougher DUI penalties and for better record-sharing. The WMC Action News 5 Investigators will continue to update you on their progress.