Category Archives: children’s issues

DUI special session deemed a ‘step backward’

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is looking to turn back the clock on an underage drunken driving law that threatened to cost Tennessee $60 million in federal road money.

The law that went into effect in July raised the penalties for driving under the influence by 18- through 20-year-olds. But the change ran afoul of federal zero-tolerance standards for underage drivers by raising the maximum allowable blood alcohol content from 0.02 percent to 0.08 percent.

According to an advance version of legislation the Haslam administration plans to file during a special session that starts next week, the state would eliminate nearly all of the provisions of the new law, returning the 0.02 percent rule and the more lenient penalties for all drivers beneath the legal drinking age.

“From a public policy standpoint, this is obviously a step backward,” said Republican Rep. William Lamberth of Gallatin, the lead sponsor of the original legislation. “But it is a step that will put us in compliance with federal regulation and ensure that that $60 million comes to Tennessee.” Continue reading

Procedure set for special DUI fix session

The special session called by Gov. Bill Haslam to fix a $60 million foulup in the state’s drunken driving law will begin with state House and Senate floor sessions starting at 2 pm Monday and end at some point on Wednesday, according to officials.

Haslam, in his proclamation calling the session, limits action to revision a bill passed earlier in the year that changed the punishment for persons aged 18-21 for drunken driving and any related matters.

Federal officials have determined that the revision effectively raises the legal presumption of DUI for such persons from .02 blood alcohol content to .08 – meaning Tennessee is not in compliance with federal law mandating a .02 threshold and thus making subject to a $60 million reduction in federal highway funding starting Oct. 1.

Still, the fix bill – expected to be approved without opposition (though perhaps with a lot of speeches) must pass on three separate readings on different days to comply with the state constitution. Kara Owen, spokeswoman for House Speaker Beth Harwell, says plans call for the fix bill to be introduced and approved on first reading Monday and on second reading Tuesday in a session that will begin – at least in the House – at 10 am.
Committees will meet later in the day Tuesday to approve the measure. Presuming the procedure will follow the same path as the original bill causing the problem, that in the House will mean the Criminal Justice Subcommittee and then the full committee, followed by the Budget Subcommittee of the House Finance Committee and then the full Finance committee plus the Calendar Committee.

In the Senate, the original bill (SB1317) went only through the Judiciary Committee, but likely will go to Finance as well in the special session since money is obviously involved. (The original fiscal note estimated a loss of just $16,500 in state revenue – well below the Senate’s $100,000 ‘sweeper’ standard for Finance referral; contrasting with the House’s “zero sweeper,” requiring all spending bills go through Finance.)

In regular session, rules call for delays after a bill clears committee before a floor vote is scheduled that could put the final vote off until Thursday. But if those rules are suspended as expected – requiring a two-thirds majority vote – the final vote can be scheduled for Wednesday.

Haslam calls Sept. 12 special session on DUI foulup

News release from the governor’s office
NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced he will call an “extraordinary session” of the 109th General Assembly to consider legislation preventing the loss of $60 million in federal highway funds after the U.S. Department of Transportation deemed the state out of compliance with a federal “zero tolerance” drunk driving statute.

“We are disappointed in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s decision. The state made clear to federal officials that while it disagrees with the interpretation that Tennessee is out of compliance, any such perceived impact of the law was inadvertent and could be fixed in January 2017,” Haslam said. “To avoid any negative impact to the state, I will ask the General Assembly to convene in a special session and clarify state law in this matter.”

Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) notified the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) that 2016 Tennessee Public Chapter No. 1030, which passed overwhelmingly during the 2016 legislative session, signed by the governor, and actually strengthened penalties for DUI offenders aged 18 to 20, puts the state out of compliance with a federal “zero tolerance” drunk driving statute that conditions certain federal highway funding on compliance with its provisions.

The NHTSA indicated Tennessee would permanently lose $60 million if it remained out of compliance as of October 1. In separate letters to NHTSA, TDOT Commissioner John Schroer and Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery agreed that Tennessee continues to meet the requirements of federal “zero tolerance” drunk driving statute.

All 11 members of the bipartisan Tennessee congressional delegation urged U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to work with Haslam and state officials to find a solution. To avoid a special session of the General Assembly, the state told federal officials it would take up a remedy in January 2017, but the state was notified today it needs to be in compliance by October 1 or face the loss of these federal highway funds.

Haslam will issue an official proclamation calling for a special session in September in the coming days to clarify Tennessee Code to remove any question of compliance with the federal requirements relating to federal-aid highway apportionment.

UPDATE/Note: Subsequent to the press release, Haslam issued a proclamation declaring the special session will begin Sept. 12. Copy of Haslam’s letter to legislators is available by clicking on this link: Extraordinary Session Proclamation. The proclamation itself is HERE.

Further, from The Tennessean:
Haslam said discussion over whether to expel embattled Rep. Jeremy Durham would not be part of the call for a special session.

“We’re meeting because this issue has come up and we need to address this,” Haslam said.

When pressed on the decision to not include Durham’s expulsion in the special session call, Haslam said, “That’s not our role.”

Haslam said if members of the legislature wanted to add Durham to the call, he would not get in the way. “If they want to do that, that’s their decision,” he said.

Haslam said the length of the session is unknown but any legislation would need three readings. When lawmakers introduce bills they typically allow one day for each reading. “We’re looking to see if there’s any flexibility,” he said.

TN congressmen plead for $60M fed funding

All 11 members of Tennessee’s congressional delegation have signed a letter asking U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to help the state keep $60 million in highway funds that are in jeopardy because of a new state DUI law, reports Michael Collins.

“Based upon our review of both the state and federal laws and the purpose behind both laws, it seems that both the State of Tennessee and the federal government have the same objective of penalizing impaired driving and that the common sense thing to do is to resolve this matter promptly,” the lawmakers wrote. “We are available to assist in any way that would be helpful.”

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration informed the state last week it’s in danger of losing the highway money because of the DUI law passed earlier this year.

The law, which took effect July 1, changed the impaired-driver threshold from a blood alcohol content of 0.02 to a blood alcohol content of 0.08 for drivers between 18 and 20.

The change means the state is no longer in compliance with the federal zero tolerance law, which requires states to set 0.02 as the blood-alcohol level allowed for drivers under age 21.

As a result, federal transportation officials say they must withhold 8 percent of federal highway funding from the state. If the state is not in compliance by Oct. 1, it will forfeit $60 million in highway funding.

Tennessee argues it can enforce the 0.08 standard because another state law makes it illegal for anyone under age 21 to possess or consume any alcoholic beverage. Federal officials are expected to decide by Friday if that qualifies as compliance with the federal zero tolerance law.

If they decide it doesn’t, Gov. Bill Haslam would have to call the General Assembly into special session to repeal or modify the new DUI law or petition the federal government for a waiver until the Legislature begins its regular session next January.

“We hope you will work with Tennessee to find a solution that will allow our state to retain desperately needed highway funds,” the state’s congressional lawmakers said in their letter to Foxx.

Special session to avoid $60M fed funding loss?

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee officials are scrambling to avoid losing $60 million in federal road funding because of a new state law that runs afoul of zero-tolerance standards for underage drivers who have been drinking.

Officials with the state Transportation Department in a teleconference Monday urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to hold off on a formal decision to cut the state’s road funding by 8 percent until after reviewing arguments that another state law should keep Tennessee in compliance.

The federal agency said it would rule on the state’s claim by the end of the week, TDOT spokeswoman B.J. Doughty said.

Federal guidelines require a strict 0.02 percent allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under the legal drinking age. The new Tennessee law raises that limit to 0.08 for 18- to 20-year-olds but also metes out the stronger penalties for offenders. Continue reading

Fed funding at risk under new DUI law for juveniles

By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper on Friday criticized Tennessee Republicans for changes to the state’s underage drunken driving law that could lead to a loss of $60 million in federal highway funding.

Under the new law, which took effect on July 1, the allowable blood alcohol content for 18- to 20-year-old drivers was raised to 0.08 percent, but offenders now face the same level penalties as adult drivers convicted of drunken driving.

Federal guidelines suggest a strict 0.02 percent allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under the legal drinking age. The new Tennessee law splits this group into two: 16- and 17-year-olds are still subject to the 0.02 limit, while those 18-20 now have a higher allowable limit, but with the tougher punishments.

Cooper said the change runs afoul of federal standards for underage drivers, meaning that the state could stand to lose 8 percent of its federal highway funding, or $60 million per year.

“This must be a mistake,” Cooper said. “No one wants more drunk drivers on the road. State leaders should act immediately and comply with a zero tolerance policy.” Continue reading

Judge pushes oversight of juvenile offenders to age 25

Young criminal offenders would be under oversight of the state’s juvenile justice system until they reach age 25 instead of 19 under a proposal being pushed by Shelby County Juvenile Court Judge Dan Michael, according to the Commercial Appeal.

“What it would do is it would give us longer with those kids who are on the fence, who probably haven’t hurt anyone other than scared them to death, who we know may need another two years. That if we don’t hold them for those two years, they’re liable to go out and do something even worse,” said Michael.

…”The law currently says juvenile court should have jurisdiction until 19 years of age. I’m taking out 19 and plugging in 25. It changes nothing else but the age.”

But that one word change in the bill would create sweeping changes in the juvenile court system if passed. Juveniles who commit a crime before their 18th birthday would have the ability to remain in the juvenile court system until they turn 25, depending on the crime. However, a judge could still file a motion to transfer the juvenile to adult court if the offense warranted it, Michael said.

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich said she would need to see the bill’s language to better understand Michael’s proposal, but changing the age of jurisdiction would prompt a long, complicated process.

“First of all, if you were to increase the number of individuals that would be monitored and supervised by (Department of Children’s Services), they don’t have the resources to do that,” Weirich said. “That would take additional funds, additional personnel…”

Weirich was more open to the idea of blended sentencing, where a juvenile court imposes both juvenile and adult sanctions simultaneously, with the adult sentence suspended. If the offender completes the juvenile sentence without incident, oftentimes they do not have to serve the adult sentence. If the juvenile violates the conditions of the first sentence, he or she may be required to serve the adult sentence.

‘Fetal assault bill’ dies on tie vote in House sub

A controversial law that criminalizes women who give birth to drug-dependent babies will sunset later this year after a bill in front of a House committee failed Tuesday, reports The Tennessean.

The legislation (HB1660), sponsored by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, failed to receive the necessary approval from the Criminal Justice subcommittee, as a result of a tie vote on the six-member committee.

Tennessee made national headlines in 2014 after lawmakers passed a law to make it the first state in the nation to penalize women who give birth to babies who test positive for narcotics.

Weaver’s bill specifically sought to extend the law beyond its July 1 sunset date.

Rep. Mike Stewart said he worried the unintended consequences of the law have resulted in people being discouraged from seeking drug treatment. He said the law has even caused some women to seek an abortion.

Reiterating Stewart’s point, Charles Harmuth, a doctor practicing addiction medicine in Coffee County, said, “I do feel that in my practice and also in the meetings that I attend, women do discuss having had abortions and also their fear of being prosecuted.”

Noting that he has seen an increase in the number of therapeutic abortions since 2014, Harmuth said Weaver’s bill would not give women the freedom and trust in the system to come out of the shadows and seek treatment.

“I beg of the committee to look at prevention and treatment as opposed to punitive actions and possible incarceration,” he said.

…Rep. Andrew Farmer, R-Sevierville, sided with the committee’s two Democrats — Reps. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, and Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis — resulting in the bill’s defeat.

‘Fetal assault bill’ may lead to more drug treatment funding for pregnant women

An impassioned and unresolved controversy over whether to continue criminal prosecution of women who give birth to drug-addicted babies has birthed a bipartisan and unanimous committee crusade to spend more state money on treatment for addiction.

All members of the state House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, where the opposing sides argued emotionally and at length about the “fetal assault bill” last week, signed on afterward to a proposed state budget amendment that would provide $10 million in new funding “for the sole purpose of drug addiction treatment services for pregnant women and newborn babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome.”

The bill, HB1660, appeared on the verge of defeat after a Sevier County judge who presides over a drug court joined others in telling legislators that a two-year experiment in authorizing prosecution of addicted mothers has been a failure.

The others included a Blount County mother who is among about 100 women prosecuted under the law — she drew applause after testifying, with legislators joining in a technical violation of legislative rules — as well as a doctor specializing in neonatal abstinence syndrome, or NAS, and people involved in addiction treatment.

Legislators in 2014 made Tennessee the first state in the nation to enact such a statute, deeming illegal use of drugs just prior to birth a misdemeanor assault on the fetus — thus the “fetal assault” label. But included in 2014 was an automatic repeal on July 1, 2016, unless renewed by the General Assembly.

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver, R-Lancaster, who sponsored the 2014 law as well as the bill this year to keep it on the books permanently, joined the committee members in signing as a co-sponsor of the $10 million drug treatment budget amendment, drafted by Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, a former prosecutor who staunchly supports the measure. Continue reading

Democrats push bill to criminalize guns for kids

Democratic lawmakers promoted at a Thursday news conference a bill to deter gun owners from leaving loaded guns accessible to children — and named it “MaKayla’s Law” after the 8-year-old Jefferson County girl killed by an 11-year-old neighbor with his father’s shotgun, reports Richard Locker.

MaKayla Dyer’s mother, Tasha Patterson of White Pine, and grandfather, Robbie Huddleston of Illinois, agreed to have MaKayla’s name on the bill and support the effort, said Beth Joslin Roth, policy director for the Safe Tennessee Project, which is helping push the bill.

If approved, the bill would make it a violation for a person to “recklessly place, leave or store in plain view and readily accessible to a child under 13 if the gun is left unattended,” not under the owner’s control, and either contains ammunition or ammunition is in the immediate vicinity — unless the gun has a trigger lock or similar device or is in a locked container or cabinet accessible only by the owner or the owner’s spouse.
Continue reading