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Appeals court trims sentence for some repeat DUI offenders

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY (AP) — A state appeals court tried to clarify Alabama's heavily amended drunken driving law Friday with a ruling that means a shorter sentence for one repeat offender and possibly more.

The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals said the four convictions that raise a drunken driving sentence from a misdemeanor to a felony must be within a five-year period. The ruling struck down a long felony sentence for a motorist who had seven driving under the influence convictions within 15 years, but only three within a five-year period.

The state attorney general's office argued that the convictions didn't have to be within a five-year period, but the Court of Criminal Appeals disagreed in an unanimous decision.

Chris Bence, spokesman for Attorney General Troy King, said two staff attorneys were reviewing the decision and would meet with King on Monday to discuss the next step, including whether to appeal to the Alabama Supreme Court.

As of August, 599 of the 29,148 people sentenced to Alabama prisons had felony DUI convictions, but state officials had no immediate estimate on how many of those cases might be affected if the appeals court's ruling stands.

Alabama's drunken driving law provides that the first three convictions are misdemeanors punishable by up to a year in jail, but a fourth conviction becomes a felony punishable by one to 10 years in prison.

Originally, the law specified in multiple places that prosecutors only counted convictions within a five-year period. The Legislature amended out the five-year requirement in some parts of the law when rewriting it several times in recent years to strengthen it. But then a 2006 amendment put it back in one key part of the law, the appeals court said.

Jeffrey Hankins of Lamar County appealed after he was sentenced to prison for five years and five months for having four DUI convictions. Court records showed Hankins actually had seven prior DUI convictions within 15 years, but only two were within five years of his last arrest, the appeals court said.

Hankins argued on appeal that his sentencing for a felony was improper.

The criminal appeals judges said they must follow the ``statutory construction'' of the DUI law and apply a five-year limit, even though it means Hankins must be resentenced for a misdemeanor rather than a felony.

"We recognize the effect of our interpretation on DUI sentencing,'' Judge Greg Shaw wrote.

"If the court's construction is, in fact, not the intent of the Legislature, we urge the Legislature to promptly clarify its intent through appropriate legislation,'' he wrote.

Hankins' attorney was in court Friday and did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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