Cover of House Bill 1043, courtesy of Colorado General AssemblyColorado’s felony DUI bill, which Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law on Monday, creates a possible felony charge for anyone who gets a fourth drunk driving offense, punishable by up to six years in prison and a fine of as much as $500,000, Brandon Rittiman reports for 9News.

If you have three prior convictions for DUI, DWAI, vehicular assault, and/or vehicular homicide — a simple DUI in Colorado could become a felony,” Rittiman writes. He points out that the four strikes do not have to all be in Colorado. Under the new law, offenses anywhere else in the United States which would be classified as DUI crimes in Colorado would count against an offender.

Until HB 15-1043, which goes into effect on August 5, it has been possible for a driver to get an unlimited number of DUI convictions in Colorado and only be sentenced to a short time in county jail, Rittiman notes. Hickenlooper said that there are now only three states left that have not created a felony DUI law, Rittiman writes.

The governor signed HB 15-1043 into law at the headquarters of Lifeloc Technologies, in Wheat Ridge, which makes breathalyzers, writes John Frank for The Denver Post. Hickenlooper was surrounded by victims and family members who lost loved ones in drunk driving crashes and have urged lawmakers to pass a DUI law, Frank reports.

One of those victims, Ellie Phipps, 49, of Grand Junction, who was nearly killed by a drunk driver in a 2011 car accident, said at the signing that she was “really pleased” with the law, but she implored lawmakers to toughen it, Frank writes. The drunk driver who rear ended her vehicle at a traffic light was a seven-time offender, Phipps said, as Frank writes.

Frank writes that attempts at a stronger law failed:

For the past five years, similar legislation failed. Hickenlooper made this year’s bill one of his top priorities and helped convince reluctant members of his own party who feared it did too little to rehabilitate offenders with substance-abuse problems.

The original version imposed a felony charge on the third arrest for the most egregious cases, but lawmakers weakened the bill to reduce its price tag even as critics argued that neither bill would make roads safer.

Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said that change takes time, Frank writes, saying after the signing that government operates in steps, “You rarely get gigantic sea level change.” But, he added, the new law is a “pretty big” step.

HB 15-1043 will apply to a small percentage of the more than 24,000 annual cases of impaired driving, Rittiman writes. It gives judges discretion to sentence the offenders according to the facts and circumstances of each case, including a defendant’s willingness to participate in a treatment program, he writes. It is written to help prevent drunk drivers from reaching four strikes, Rittiman writes, by requiring them to get a conditional license that mandates the use of an ignition interlock device for two to five years after their driver’s license is revoked, Rittiman writes. As this blog has written, an interlock device will not allow the ignition to start if the person behind the wheel is not sober.

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