Drunk drivers could face 20 years in prison under bill OK’d

Drivers who kill in accidents while operating vehicles at twice the legal limit of alcohol could face more than two decades in prison under legislation advanced Tuesday by a state Senate committee.

State Sen. Bob Kostelka, R-Monroe, and sponsor of Senate Bill 55, said the legislation came about because of a March 2013 Louisiana Supreme Court decision involving a 2009 accident near Bastrop.

Craig Oliphant pleaded guilty for killing pedestrian Cravis M. Scott while driving with blood alcohol concentration of 0.247 percent, roughly three times the 0.08 percent legal limit.

Oliphant drove his 2006 Jeep Grand Cherokee on the 8-foot-wide shoulder of U.S. 165 near Bastrop when he struck Scott in front of his mother’s house.

The trial court judge found the defendant’s actions were “no different from a person putting a bullet in a gun, pointing that gun at another human being, pulling the trigger and killing that person. A gun is a dangerous weapon and so is a motor vehicle in the hands of an intoxicated person, especially one who was as intoxicated as (defendant) on the night of this tragedy.”

The District Court ruled that Oliphant’s vehicular homicide should be considered a “crime of violence” and sentenced him to 25 years in prison without parole.

The appellate court affirmed the conviction but reversed the portion of the sentence designating vehicular homicide a “crime of violence” because traditionally driving while intoxicated offenses were considered “negligence,” which meant the sentence could be no more than 15 years.

The appellate court vacated the 25-year sentence.

The Louisiana Supreme Court then stepped in and ruled the District Court was correct, finding vehicular homicide could be considered a “crime of violence” because it involves “the use of physical force and the substantial risk that force will be used against another person in the commission of the offense …”

“The decision left us with no bright line,” Kostelka said, adding SB55 would remove any ambiguity by making any vehicular homicide a “crime of violence,” if the driver was found to have a blood-alcohol rate that is more than twice the legal limit.

Specifically, SB55 adds vehicular homicide, when the convicted offenders blood alcohol concentration exceeds 0.20 percent, to the list of 44 crimes that can be designated a crime of violence.

Judge Bob Morrison, of the 21st Judicial District in St. Helena, Livingston, and Tangipahoa parishes, helped draft the legislation and said that level was chosen because “it’s very, very intoxicated.”

“It’s clearly intoxicated,” Kostelka added.

The Senate Committee on Judiciary C approved SB55 without objection, recommending it to the full Senate, which could take up the legislation as early as next week.