Those victimized by repeat offenders in the ranks of drunken drivers may disagree, but the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals got it right with a ruling on DUI charges.
The court said a new state law can't be applied retroactively. The law treats second DUI cases as automatic felonies and was used against defendants with a previous DUI conviction despite those defendants having completed their sentences. One of them was Ronald “Skip” Kelly, an Oklahoma City Council member until his defeat at the polls last spring.
Had he won another term, and had the retroactivity been upheld, Kelly could have been removed from office upon his felony conviction. This is now moot: He lost the election and the appellate court said the law can't apply to defendants with previous but now discharged DUI convictions.
Oklahoma has been cracking down on drunken drivers for years, joining a national trend of low tolerance for those who drive while inebriated. (Unfortunately, the Legislature's tolerance for people who drive while texting remains high.) Lowering the blood chemistry threshold for what constitutes inebriation was a major step.
New laws are of small comfort to survivors of those killed in crashes caused by drunken drivers. One such victim was Erin Elizabeth Swezey, 20, an Edmond woman killed by a drunken driver in a head-on wreck in 2009. Swezey is the namesake of 2011 law requiring first-time DUI offenders to have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicles. The device measures blood alcohol levels. Previously the law required the device only after a second offense occurred.
DUI defendants now face felony charges with a second offense. This won't affect Kelly and others, but the Court of Criminal Appeals made the right call in upholding a legal standard of not applying new standards to older offenses. The state's vigilance against drunken drivers will continue, as it should.