Panel tightens underage-drinking laws

The Senate Courts of Justice Committee on Monday unanimously approved a bill to make underage drinking and driving punishable as a Class 1 misdemeanor.

The committee’s 11-0 vote sent the bill to the full Senate for consideration this week.

Senate Bill 770 would provide “zero tolerance” for underage drinking and driving – targeting young drivers with a blood alcohol content as low as 0.02 percent. (That means 0.02 grams of alcohol per 100 grams of an individual’s blood. The legal limit for intoxication in Virginia and most states is 0.08 percent.)

Currently, motorists who are under 21 and are caught drinking and driving can lose their license for six months and face a fine of up to $500.

Under SB 770, sponsored by Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, such drivers could forfeit their license for a year and face a mandatory minimum fine of $500 or 50 hours of community service.

Marsden said that a previous law targeting underage drinking and driving expired last year – and that’s why his proposal is needed.

Similar bills have been proposed in previous legislative sessions. They didn’t pass partly because some officials thought such proposals might violate laws on age discrimination, Marsden said.

However, he added, the U.S. Justice Department has determined that proposals like SB 770 would not violate any federal laws or cost the state any federal funding.

Marsden said his bill is important because it makes the punishment for underage drinking and driving equal to the punishment for underage possession of alcohol.

“If you’re 20 years old and parked on the side of the road with three beers in the car, you have committed a Class 1 misdemeanor,” Marsden said.

“However, if you pull out onto the road and get caught and you don’t blow a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content, you get a Class 2 misdemeanor.”

Sen. Roscoe Reynolds, D-Martinsville, is a member of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee. He supports Marsden’s bill.

“The argument in favor of it is that you discourage drinking and driving and that you put the same discouragement for drinking and driving as you do on possessing alcohol underage,” Reynolds said.

To track or comment on Senate Bill 770, visit http://www.richmondsunlight.com/bill/2011/sb770
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