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AG won't appeal drunken driving sentences ruling

By Phillip Rawls
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Attorney General Troy King decided Tuesday not to appeal a court ruling that means shorter sentences for some drunken drivers with multiple convictions. Instead, King will encourage the Legislature to toughen the law.

On Friday, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals ruled the four convictions that raise a
driving under the influence sentence from a misdemeanor to a felony must be within a five-year period.

The attorney general's office had argued that the convictions didn't have to be within a five-year period.

Reasonable ruling

The court's unanimous ruling struck down a long felony sentence for a motorist who had seven drunken driving convictions within 15 years, but only three within a five-year period.

Chris Bence, King's spokes-man, said Tuesday the attorney general would not appeal the decision to the Alabama Supreme Court.

"The court's reasoning would be difficult to disagree with, and we believe to appeal their decision would be unproductive," Bence said.

Instead, King will work with legislators to prepare a bill for introduction in the next session starting in February.

The bill will make it clear that all convictions count in raising DUI from a misdemeanor to a felony, not just those in the last five years, Bence said.

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.

The law originally specified in multiple places that prosecutors counted convictions only 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 the five-year time frame back into one key part of the law, the appeals court said.

Removing the limit

The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said Tuesday the Legislature did not intend to put the five-year limit back into the law, and he expects lawmakers to work with the attorney general to achieve his goal.

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 by the appeals court's ruling.

The criminal appeals court's ruling came in the case of Jeffery Hankins, a Lamar County man who has served about a year of his 18-month sentence. Defense attorney Tim Wads-worth said his client will now have to be resentenced and might get out on time already served.

Wadsworth said it is impossible to know how many people might now be able to go into court to reduce the offense from a felony to a misdemeanor, but it most likely will be those convicted since 2006 and those awaiting trial.

In Friday's decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals invited the Legislature to act.

Judge Greg Shaw wrote, "We recognize the effect of our interpretation on DUI sentencing." He said that if the court's view of the law was not what the Legislature intended, then the judges "urge the Legislature to promptly clarify its intent through appropriate legislation."

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

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