A Memphis congressman is spearheading a new bill that will change the way police across the United States report arrest for DWI. On March 8, Congressmen Steve Cohen (D-TN) and Steve Chabot (R-OH) introduced the DWI Reporting Act. Their bill claims to “address the loophole in our nation's drunken-driving laws that enables repeat DWI offenders to be charged and tried as first-time offenders because of inconsistent reporting."
The new bill is backed by a group of bipartisan co-sponsors that includes: Ryan Costello (R-PA), Julia Brownley (D-CA), Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), Suzan DelBene (D-WA), Trent Kelly (R-MS), Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), Tom Marino (R-PA), Betty McCollum (D-MN), and Jerrold Nadler (D-NY).
Congressman Cohen cited the case of Melandus Penson to support the claims made in the bill. In 2015, Penson killed two 17-year-olds on Highway 78 in Marshall County, Mississippi. Penson was found to have nearly twice the legal blood alcohol limit at the time of the crash and he was sentenced to 60 years in prison for the deaths of Rachel Lynch and Maddie Kruse.
Charged As a First-Time Offender
Penson was charged with 7 DWIs between 2008 and 2015, and was convicted 5 times. Every time Penson was convicted for DWI, he pleaded guilty and was ultimately treated as a first-time DWI offender.
Pesnon was able to do this because none of the counties or municipalities where he was convicted reported his DWI history to the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). This data base allows police to access a person’s arrest record at their desks or in their patrol cars virtually everywhere in the United States. Because his record was never reported, it didn’t show up when the Mississippi Highway Patrol ran his name through the NCIC.
After the fatal crash that Penson caused, Tennessee passed a law that requires all police agencies to report arrest records to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation within five days, and to report every DWI to NCIC within seven days.
Mississippi failed pass similar reporting laws, which is why U.S. lawmakers are now trying to pass the DWI Reporting Act. According to Cohen:
“This bill will save lives by enacting common-sense, bipartisan reforms to harmonize reporting standards for DWI offenses across the states … A DWI somewhere should be recognized as a DWI anywhere. It should not matter where you are caught driving drunk. If you drive drunk, previous offenses should be recorded and penalties should increase so innocent lives can be saved. The accrual of multiple first-time DUI offenses is unconscionable and must be brought to an end.”
Speaking about the possibility of this new bill becoming law, our own attorney, Christopher P. Cavazos had the following to say:
“Technology has made the world a smaller place. It has also changed the way people are affected by criminal charges. If this bill becomes law, with a quick search, a person can possibly go from facing a misdemeanor to being charged with a felony. With this bill, a conviction today for a DWI in one state can dramatically alter the punishment range for all future DWIs across the country. This bill makes it imperative that a person charged with a DWI hire and experienced defense attorney to protect their constitutional rights."