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VOL. 132 | NO. 52 | Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Haslam Commits State to DUI Prosecution Funding

By Sam Stockard

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NASHVILLE – The governor’s office is promising $5.6 million in yearly funding and grants to maintain DUI enforcement prosecution across the state, money that would have been jeopardized by passage of an open container law.

Money for 30 assistant district attorneys, 24 coordinators and three positions in the DA General Conference office, affecting 25 of 32 districts across Tennessee, could have been moved into transportation projects in an unintended consequence of Gov. Bill Haslam’s IMPROVE Act.

Each DA’s district statewide has two or three grant positions funded by the federal money. The 30th District in Shelby County would have lost $304,316 and Davidson County $385,035 as a result of the shift, according to the DA General Conference.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich was among the district attorneys who sent letters to the governor urging him to preserve funding for those DUI prosecutors.

Governor’s office liaison Warren Wells recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee the governor plans to put money in a budget amendment to ensure those positions are funded if the Legislature passes an open container law.

Part of Haslam’s plan to raise nearly $400 million annually to start cutting into the state’s $10.5 billion backlog in road and bridge projects includes passing an open container law so $18 million in federal funds can be shifted to the transportation fund from the Highway Safety Program.

Under existing law, the funds are restricted and can’t be used for road projects because Tennessee’s law conflicts with federal guidelines prohibiting any open alcoholic beverages in vehicles. Tennessee law allows open containers in vehicles as long as the driver doesn’t have one.

Jerry Estes, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, said he is comfortable the funding will be placed in the governor’s budget, “regardless of what happens on the open container.”

“If open container does not pass, as I understand it, we continue as we have been,” Estes said. “But if it does pass, then they indicated they will, in the budget amendment, put the funding for those positions and a grant will take care of the training aspect of it.”

The governor’s office confirmed $4.9 million would go toward DUI enforcement personnel, and the rest for training law enforcement officers, DAs and other personnel would come from a grant.

In 2016, the state totaled 4,606 alcohol-related crashes, down from 6,887 five years ago and 6,540 the previous year, according to a letter to the governor’s office from the DA General Conference. Yet the number of dispositions for all categories of DUI/traffic-related crimes statewide increased to 12,085 in 2016 from 9,478 in 2013, indicating an “increasing trend in arrests,” requiring more specialized DUI prosecutors.

The open container provision last week was placed in a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The funding for DUI enforcement, however, appears to be on firmer footing.

Sen. Jon Lundberg, a Bristol Republican who has been pushing for an open container law for a decade, believes it is “good public policy” to prohibit alcoholic beverages in vehicles.

Passing an open container law would enable the state to use those funds for its Highway Traffic Safety Program or for building roads and bridges, Lundberg pointed out.

“Frankly, when you’re talking about a gas-tax increase and you’re talking about raising a tax, you want to know that you’ve squeezed every other dollar possible,” Lundberg said. “And right now, here’s $18 million that the federal government says you can’t spend on roads, bridges or anything else.”

Of the “open container” funds from the federal government, $8 million goes to Department of Transportation safety measures; $2.8 million to media for advertising such as “click it or ticket” and “booze you lose”; $4.5 million to local law enforcement overtime; and $4.9 million to DUI/traffic offense prosecution, according to information from the DA Conference.

Under the governor’s plan, that money would go to transportation if the open container measure becomes state law.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for The Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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