Wyoming Officials Say Mandatory Drunk Driving Law Gaining Acceptance

By Jeremy Pelzer | January 4, 2012

After a bit of a rocky start, law enforcement officials and prosecutors around the state say they’re now running into few problems with Wyoming’s new mandatory DUI (driving under the influence) testing law.

Since July 1, police officers have been able to get a judicial warrant requiring motorists pulled over for suspected alcohol or drug use to take a breath, blood or urine test. Prosecutors say the change has helped them win cases against drunk drivers, especially repeat offenders who know how to beat the system.

Civil liberties advocates have worried about officers restraining uncooperative suspects by force to take a blood-alcohol test, and some judges question the constitutionality of requesting a warrant by phone.

Police and prosecutors say it’s still too early to pass final judgment on the new law.

But in the past few months, police officials in many counties say that as more people learn about the law, most suspects now yield to testing without force. Judges, too, say they’re becoming more comfortable with the legality of the law, even if they may still be annoyed by late-night phone calls from an officer seeking a warrant.

“The general consensus is that it’s going well,” said Eric Phillips, Wyoming’s traffic safety resource prosecutor. “A lot of the anticipated worries haven’t come to fruition.”

Within the first two months of the new law being enforced, police in at least 16 Wyoming counties received warrants for DUI testing, a Casper Star-Tribune survey found.

In four counties, at least one suspect continued to refuse, leading officers to conduct blood tests by force.

On July 31. Cheyenne police received a warrant to test a 24-year-old man who was pulled over after reportedly driving erratically. When he still resisted, he was taken to Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, where five Cheyenne police officers held him down while a blood draw was conducted.

But in the past four months, no such incidents have taken place in Laramie County, said Laramie County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Gerry Luce.

“What we’ve seen here in the last three months is the trend has been extremely downward, if you will,” Luce said. “From our perspective, people understand that they’re required to comply with the law.”

Law enforcement agencies in other counties have also overcome initial difficulties.

For years, the Converse County Sheriff’s Office has taken DUI suspects to Memorial Hospital in Douglas for blood tests.

But when the new mandatory DUI law first took effect, the hospital refused to test people against their will, out of concern that unruly suspects would disrupt hospital operations.

For the past couple of months, though, the hospital has reached an arrangement with the sheriff’s department to send a nurse to the department’s detention facility to draw blood whenever a suspect is unwilling.

“It’s working very well,” Memorial Hospital Chief Nursing Officer George Rudloff said.

Before the law took effect, Natrona County Circuit Judge Michael Huber voiced concerns about whether the Wyoming Constitution allows police to obtain a warrant over the phone. But Huber said in a late August interview that he now believes such actions are constitutional.

The main drawback, Huber said, is the annoyance of judges getting warrant requests in the middle of the night. That, he said, could both overwork some judges and deter attorneys from applying to become judges in the future.

“Anybody that says it’s not an issue, just frankly, between you and me, they don’t know what they’re talking about,” he said.

While incidents like the Cheyenne arrest get headlines, law enforcement officials around the state emphasized that in the vast majority of cases, DUI suspects consent peacefully to a test — especially after they’re told that it’s mandatory.

The DUI test requirement was passed by state legislators earlier this year with the argument that repeat offenders with high blood-alcohol levels refused to be tested, knowing that refusal would make it harder to convict them at trial.

While there are no statistics showing if DUI conviction rates have increased, Phillips said a number of prosecutors around the state have said anecdotally that it’s made their job easier to win DUI cases.

Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen said that’s been true in his case.

“I think it’s helped across the board, but particularly with repeat offenders who try to game the system and play games with field sobriety maneuvers,” he said.

Blonigen said requiring tests also will help police identify people driving after using drugs.

“I think we’re going to find a lot more involvement with controlled substances and stuff than perhaps we previously recognized,” he said.

Both Phillips and Blonigen said they had expected a legal challenge to mandatory DUI testing, but neither has heard of any such lawsuit being filed so far.

Some counties are still working out the details of how to enforce the new law. Converse County Sheriff Clint Becker said his department is debating whether to purchase a strap-down table to restrain physically resistant suspects for blood tests.

Some counties, including Natrona, don’t bother to administer a DUI test by force. Instead, they charge the suspect with interference.

Debbie Taylor of Wyoming MADD said she would like to see the Legislature establish a uniform statewide policy for how police should administer DUI tests to unwilling suspects and enact harsher penalties for those who don’t consent to a test.

But Taylor said there are no immediate plans to push for such measures, especially as it can be tough to get state lawmakers to pass stricter impaired-driving laws.

“A lot of legislators feel that it is taking away from the general public’s rights, and so they don’t like to add more laws to the books,” she said.

Topics Legislation Personal Auto Law Enforcement

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