Sentences for Repeat Drunk Drivers Deviate Widely Under Colorado's Recent Felony DUI Law

According to a recent review of DUI sentencing data conducted by the Denver Post, judges in Breathalyzer testColorado have been issuing widely divergent sentences for repeat drunk drivers under the state’s recently-passed felony DUI statute. The Denver Post found that while some convicted under the law received long prison sentences, approximately one in 12 convicted received no jail time at all.

When the state legislature passed the felony DUI law in 2015, Colorado joined 45 other states that already had such statutes in place. However, in order to ensure the bill’s passage in the face of opponents who had concerns over its enforcement costs and potentially punitive punishments, its backers had to make some compromises on the new law’s sentencing requirements. While the old law required that offenders with more than two misdemeanor DUI charges face jail time of at least 60 days, the new law–while mandating that a fourth charge be treated as a felony–does not impose any minimum jail time.

Many prosecutors in the state have complained about the broad discretion granted to judges in imposing sentences on repeat offenders under the new law. As the Denver Post found in their review of 316 felony DUI cases, almost 30 percent of offenders sentenced under the felony DUI statute were given a prison sentence while nearly half received a jail sentence. However, approximately 22 percent of felony offenders were sentenced to work-release programs, halfway houses or just probation, with almost eight percent of those convicted facing no time in jail or prison at all. In three extreme cases, convicted felony DUI offenders were sentenced to home detention, a punishment almost never allowed upon a third misdemeanor conviction.

In light of the divergent sentencing patterns that have emerged under the new law, many prosecutors as well as the original sponsor of the legislation are aiming to amend the felony DUI statute during the next legislative session to include some minimum jail time upon a felony DUI conviction. However, many Colorado defense attorneys and Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey still believe that mandatory incarceration would not solve the problem while at the same time removing necessary judicial discretion.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of these attempted amendments to the law, it seems clear that sentencing under the new felony DUI statute is not working entirely as anticipated. With the current law allowing for so much discrepancy in sentencing, it is best to consult an experienced DUI defense attorney as soon as possible after being charged with a driving under the influence, in order to avoid conviction all together.