Meridian Star

April 7, 2013

DUI laws expected to get more teeth

By Brian Livingston /
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN —     Stephanie Denham of Meridian just acknowledged an anniversary, one she wishes she didn't have on her calendar.

    It was 22 years ago on March 24 that her 9-year-old daughter, Lorien Lea Denham, was riding in a car with her dad when their vehicle was violently struck by another car driven by a drunk driver. The little girl was severely injured and died five days later.

    "The guy that hit them was a repeat DUI offender," said Denham. "He shouldn't have been driving, period. No parent should have to bury their child. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemies."

    Mississippi lawmakers are trying to provide the state's DUI laws with yet another set of teeth when it comes to people who drive while under the influence. Gov. Phil Bryant is expected to sign into law House Bill 481 that already passed the House and the Senate.

    The new law would give judges the option of requiring a person convicted of their first DUI to use an ignition interlock device for up to six months. The device, basically an alcohol breathalyzer wired into the ignition switch, would prevent the car, SUV or truck from starting if alcohol is detected by the machine.

    The bill is sponsored by House Speaker Philip Gunn, R-Clinton, whose parents and sister were killed by a drunken driver in the late 1980s. One of the co-sponsors is Rep. Mark Formby, R-Picayune, whose young niece was killed two months ago after her parents' vehicle was hit by a driver Formby said allegedly had previous DUI convictions.

    The bill also states that a fourth offense of DUI would automatically be a felony, triggering a sentence of two to 10 years in prison. It wouldn't matter how many years had passed between the previous convictions and the fourth one. Under current law, a person can face a felony by having three or more DUI convictions within five years.

    Law enforcement officials, such as Meridian Police Department Acting Chief James Sharpe, say that any strengthening of current DUI laws is a good idea.

    "When it comes to repeat offenders, anytime you can take them off the streets, roads and highways, that makes it much safer for the residents," Sharpe said. "Whenever an impaired driver gets behind the wheel, their vehicle becomes a lethal 3,000 pound weapon."

    Denham, who is a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) said this law, or similar forms, have been on the legislative agendas for more than 15 years. She says it is better to be late than to never pass this kind of law.

    "Hey, we live in Mississippi so although a lot of states have had this law for many years, we tend to be a little behind everyone else," Denham says. "I have always thought that people will find a way around anything but I do believe this law will slow down and potentially stop some people from killing innocents."