Recent DUI law changes lead to inconsistent sentencing

This article looks at how recent changes to Colorado's DUI laws have led to inconsistent sentences.

In 2015 Colorado changed its DUI laws to make multiple DUI offenses a felony. As ABC 7 News reported at the time, the new law meant that those charged with their fourth DUI would automatically be charged with a felony and face up to six years in prison. Previously, each DUI was typically charged as a misdemeanor offense. While the change in the law was designed to crack down on repeat offenders, it has had some unintended consequences. Most notably, it has led to alarmingly inconsistent sentencing, with some repeat DUI charges leading to lengthy sentences while more serious offenses lead to no incarceration. In fact, the law has led to the unusual situation of a misdemeanor DUI having the potential to lead to a harsher sentence than a felony DUI.

History behind the law

The law that was passed in 2015 was designed to ensure that repeat DUI offenders were not simply charged with a misdemeanor each time they got a DUI. Critics contended that Colorado's lack of a felony DUI law for repeat offenders meant it was out of step with other states on the issue and that it was being too lax on the problem of drunk driving.

However, criticisms arose that the proposed new law would be too harsh on DUI offenders. To address those concerns, the new law removed mandatory minimum sentences for people facing a fourth DUI. Instead, the law gave judges the power to impose a sentence that they felt was appropriate.

Misdemeanors harsher than felonies?

While that compromise was well intentioned, it was had the odd effect of making some misdemeanor DUIs worse than felony DUIs as far as sentencing is concerned. As the Aspen Times reports, one analysis found that 25 of the 316 felony DUI convictions since the law was passed resulted in no prison time. While a lack of prison time may be appropriate in some cases where treatment could be a more effective option, it does highlight a strange gap between misdemeanor and felony DUI sentencing.

That's because while there is no mandatory minimum sentence for felony DUI, there is one for misdemeanor DUI. An individual who has three misdemeanor DUIs faces a mandatory minimum of 60 days in jail. In other words, somebody with three DUIs faces a worse mandatory minimum sentence than somebody charged with a fourth DUI, where judges have greater discretion in how the individual is sentenced.

Criminal defense

As the above article shows, Colorado's DUI laws can be harsh and severe in often unpredictable ways. With sentences for DUI offenses varying so widely, it is important for anybody who has been charged with a DUI to get legal help immediately. A criminal defense attorney can help clients defend their rights and protect their freedoms when faced with these very serious charges.