Committee tables bill to harshen penalties for reckless drivers

State Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes on the house floor during the 2017 New Mexico Legislature. The Committee of Consumer and Public Affairs tabled a bill Maestas-Barnes sponsored- the bill would apply harsher penalties for reckless drivers. Photo: John Acosta

Reckless drivers in New Mexico will not receive harsher penalties for vehicular homicide, at least this year. This topic was addressed in Santa Fe, New Mexico on Tuesday Jan. 31.

NM State Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes (R-Albuquerque) sponsored a bill in the 2017 legislative session that would increase the prison sentences of people convicted of vehicular homicide while driving recklessly.

“House bill 23 is a very simple and straight-forward piece of legislation,” Rep. Barnes said. “It is what some have referred to as a way to close the deadly driving loophole.”

The bill did not make it out of its first committee on the 14th calendar day of the 60-day legislative session.

House Bill 23 would have increased jail time for people convicted of homicide while driving recklessly. an increase from the current sentence of six years to 15 years. The bill would have also changed the crime to a second-degree felony instead of the current third-degree.

According to New Mexico Statute NMS 66-8-113, a person driving a vehicle carelessly, and disregarding the rights and safety of others at a speed or manner that endangers any person or property whether it be intentional or not, is guilty of reckless driving.

The House Consumer and Public Affair Committee heard the bill – with three Democrat committee members voting against it and two Republican committee members voting for it.

Afterward, Barnes said she feels the decision was completely partisan and that public safety should not be a partisan issue.

“We really should be focusing on good policy that benefits all New Mexicans,” Barnes said. “I made a commitment not just to the people that I represent, but all of New Mexico that I was never going to put partisan politics over the will of the people.”

New Mexico Public Defender, Kim Chavez-Cook said her opposition to HB 23 had nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with blurring the line between reckless driving and other serious driving offenses.

“My concern now is that we took that step last year to create that tier and now what we’re doing by raising the penalty for DUI and now we’re bringing that floor up for recklessness,” Chavez-Cook said. She also said raising the penalties on reckless driving would blur the line that is already in place for drunk driving.

In 2016 New Mexico ranked 14th, tied with Arizona, West Virginia, and South Dakota in the number of vehicular homicides caused by drunk drivers, according to the MADD website.

Another factor in the bill’s demise may have been the state’s considerable budget deficit.

The annual cost to incarcerate an offender in a state-run prison is $44,776, according to the Fiscal Impact Report prepared by the legislative committee

“That number seems excessively high.” said Bob Wooley (R-Albuquerque), a member of the Consumer and Public Affairs Committee.

As for future plans, Maestas-Barnes said she plans to reintroduce the bill next year… but for the 2017 legislative session, HB 23 is dead.

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