New law boosts penalties for Breathalyzer refusal

PROVIDENCE – Gov. Donald L. Carcieri last week signed legislation that increases the penalties for those who refuse to submit to a breath test when they are pulled over for alleged drunk driving, and makes a second refusal a misdemeanor offense.

With the new law, Carcieri said, a major loophole in the state’s drunken-driving laws has been eliminated.

“For too long, we have allowed dangerous drivers to escape more serious penalties when they refuse to submit to Breathalyzer tests,” he said. “They will no longer be able to exploit the system. If you refuse a Breathalyzer test, you will face the consequences.”

The legislation to crack down on breath-test refusals was jointly submitted in November by Carcieri and Attorney General Patrick C. Lynch.

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“Cutting down on the numbers of deaths and injuries caused by drunk drivers on Rhode Island’s roadways is, without a doubt, a mission that transcends party lines,” Lynch said at the signing ceremony, held Wednesday at the State House.

Also on hand for the signing were the sponsors of the legislation, Sen. Joseph M. Polisena, D-Johnston, and Rep. J. Patrick O’Neill, D-Pawtucket, as well as advocates for tougher drunk driving laws, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).

When Carcieri and Lynch first unveiled the measure, they said they wanted to put an end to the state’s “shameful” distinction of leading the nation in the percentage of breath-test refusal cases and the share of highway deaths caused by drunken drivers.

Before the new law took effect, the penalties for refusing a breath test were significantly less than the penalties for driving under the influence.

Under the new law, first-time offenders will have their driver’s licenses suspended for six months to one year – versus three months to six months before. The fines, community-service requirements, and mandatory DUI-course participation remain unchanged.

A second offense within five years now counts as a misdemeanor, with a possible jail sentence of up to six months plus a license suspension of one to two years, a fine of $600 to $1,000, and 60 to 100 hours of community service.

Under the old law, breath-test refusal was not a crime; there was no prison sentence, the fine was $300 to $500, and there was no community service requirement.

A third offense within a five-year period is now a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison, with a license suspension of two to five years, an $800 to $1,000 fine, and a minimum of 100 hours of community service.

The new law also requires Lynch’s office to submit an “Annual Impaired Driving Report” to the General Assembly.