Senate Passes Legislation Strengthening DUI, Sex Offender Laws

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NASHVILLE -- The Tennessee General Assembly worked in marathon floor and committee sessions this past week towards the conclusion of the 2011 legislative session.  Among major bills approved were legislation to crack down on drunk drivers and several measures getting tough on child sex offenders.

The legislation dealing with drunk drivers, which I am sponsoring, advanced in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill requires the testing of a driver’s blood alcohol content (BAC) level in cases where the driver has previously been convicted of a DUI or when there is a child present in the vehicle. Tennessee’s DUI law already requires BAC testing when there is serious bodily injury to a victim or death.

Those who refuse to take a BAC test after being stopped by law enforcement on a DUI charge must surrender their driver’s license under Tennessee law until a court hearing is held. Most multiple DUI offenders have already lost their driver’s license due to prior offenses and are driving illegally. Many multiple DUI offenders are using this loophole in the law to avoid immediate BAC testing, with reports of some admitting to such. Senate Bill 1270 simply puts these two additional conditions into the law when testing must be performed, whether or not the driver consents. The test results may be offered into evidence, subject to the rules of evidence.

Multiple offenders are the most dangerous drunk drivers on our roads. They cause 70 percent of alcohol-related deaths. It is also unconscionable that anyone would have a child in their car after drinking alcohol or consuming drugs. This bill aims to ensure that there are no DUI loopholes for the worst DUI offenders on our highways. 

Turning to other anti-crime legislation passed this week, several bills were approved to strengthen Tennessee’s sex offender laws. This includes legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which I chair, to clarify a Court may increase the sentence for rape of a child above the mandatory 25 years when appropriate.

Currently, there has been confusion concerning additional punishment above the 25-year mandatory sentence for the crime. Senate Bill 755 clears up any ambiguity. It spells out that rape of a child is a Class A felony and that punishment is subject to a minimum sentence of 25 years; however, the Court may increase the time when appropriate and in cases where the defendant’s prior history warrants an enhanced sentence of up to 60 years for the most egregious circumstances.

Likewise, the full Senate has approved Senate Bill 1938 which adds aggravated rape of a child and statutory rape by an authority figure to the list of offenses requiring HIV testing of the alleged perpetrator. Under present law, when a person is initially arrested for allegedly committing the offense of rape, aggravated rape, statutory rape, or rape of a child, that person must undergo HIV testing immediately. This bill specifies that testing must be performed no later than 48 hours after the presentment of the information or indictment and that it must be performed with or without the request of the victim.

The full Senate also approved Senate Bill 1016 which requires registered sexual offenders to notify their registering law enforcement agency before they leave the country and upon re-entering. This is the last part of the Adam Walsh Act Tennessee must pass to be in compliance with the federal law protecting children from child sexual predators.  The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation interacts with Interpol to notify the other country regarding the travel of an offender.

Finally, the full Senate has approved Senate Bill 1051 to ensure that convicted of sex offenders cannot contact their victim while they are in prison.  The bill closes a loophole in the law which bans contact of a victim by the perpetrator upon release from prison, but does not clarify that communication cannot occur while the offender is jailed in prison.

Illegal Immigration / Government Benefits – The Senate State and Local Government Committee has approved Senate Bill 1325 that authorizes state departments or agencies to verify the lawful status of an alien in Tennessee.  Under the “Eligibility Verification for Entitlements Act,” the agency could then prohibit an unlawful alien who is an adult from receiving any “non-emergency” taxpayer-provided benefits in Tennessee. 

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