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Senate passes DWI, BWI sentencing bill

State lawmakers are waiting on the state Assembly to take up legislation that would allow judges to consider prior alcohol-related convictions when sentencing someone convicted of driving or boating while intoxicated.

S.4733, titled the “Bryan Johnson Law” by Sen. Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, D-Nanuet, amends the state Vehicle and Traffic Law by adding a new section allowing a judge presiding over a DWI case to consider a defendant’s prior BWI convictions for sentencing purposes. For less severe boating while intoxicated offenses, a judge will be permitted to consider DWI offenses that occurred within the last five years. For more severe boating while intoxicated offenses, a judge will be permitted to consider DWI offenses that occurred within the last 10 years.

Reichlin-Melnick said Johnson was boating with friends when the group decided to go for a swim. The driver of the boat, who had been drinking, played a prank on the swimmers and drove away. When he came back for the swimmers, Johnson had drowned.

“A year after Brian’s death, New York state began to require a boating safety course to operate a mechanically propelled vessel,” Reichlin-Melnick said on the Senate floor. “That law phased in boating course requirements starting with 18-years-olds.

Now we need to close an additional loophole that allows those convicted of drunk driving offenses to escape full accountability even if they’ve previously been convicted of drunk boating offenses. Under current law, a person could face a DWI charge and be perceived as a first-time offender despite having a history of boating while intoxicated. When a defendant demonstrates a pattern of destructive behavior they ought to face much harsher penalties.”

The legislation has passed the Senate once before in the 2017-18 session and didn’t make it out of the Senate Transportation Committee in 2019-20. A companion bill, A.6101, has been referred to the Assembly Transportation Committee and has not yet been on an agenda for discussion. S.4733 had bi-partisan support, with three Republican co-sponsors and 62-0 approval during a vote on the Senate floor earlier this week.

Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay, joined Reichlin-Melnick in speaking about the bill, saying it is the sort of legislation Republicans have been asking for since bail reform laws were passed in 2019.

“I think it’s an incredibly responsible thing for us to do,” Borrello said. “What this bill does is takes someone’s prior convictions on operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol and ensures that is allowed to be taken into consideration by a judge if someone does it again. I think it’s important to point out this is exactly what we’ve been asking for for a long time, which is to give judges discretion to understand a person’s prior record when applying a sentence. This makes a lot of sense here, but it makes a lot of sense everywhere, which is why a judge’s discretion is so incredibly important and a key component of our criminal justice system that should apply not just in this particular case but every case that is being adjudicated in New York state.”

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