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State Report: Harsher DUI and Distracted Driving Penalties + More

Saturday, May 17, 2014


This week's State Report centers on a pair of bills passed by the Senate, which aim to increase penalties for drunk driving and distracted driving. We'll also examine another newly passed Senate bill that would amend the method by which the state assessment program would be implemented in public schools. Also on the docket is a new piece of legislation that looks to expand broadband access in the Ocean State.

Sen. Bill calls for Tougher DUI Penalties

Motorists convicted of “driving to endanger” and “drunk driving" could soon face tougher penalties thanks to a new bill passed by the Rhode Island Senate this week. On Friday, the Senate approved legislation (2014-S 2646) that would increase the penalties for driving so as to endanger and driving under the influence in scenarios where a victim dies or becomes injured as a result of the offenses. Sponsored by Sen. V. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37, South Kingstown, New Shoreham), the bill also creates a new criminal offense: driving under the influence, resulting in personal injury.

“The sad truth is that many offenders, especially those who have been caught driving under the influence, don’t learn until they cause permanent injury to someone,” Senator Sosnowski said. “It’s time Rhode Island created a tough penalty that makes sense. My hope is that someone facing 20 years of prison instead of 10 might think a little harder about what they’re doing when they get behind the wheel. One driving fatality is one too many.”

The Senate passed the new language in a 30 to 0 vote, and the bill will now be sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

New penalties

If enacted, the maximum prison sentence for driving so as to endanger, resulting in death, would increase from 10 to 20 years. Maximum imprisonment for the same offense resulting in personal injury would double from five to 10 years. The legislation further addresses driving under the influence, resulting in death, with a change in maximum prison sentence from 15 to 30 years and a maximum fine of $20,000. The current maximum fine is $10,000.

Repercussions for driving under the influence and causing serious bodily harm would double under the new language; those convicted could serve up to 20 years in prison and pay no more than a $10,000 fine. That individual would also have his or her license revoked for three to five years, as opposed to two years as stated in the current statute. The last change is the addition of the personal injury offense under “driving under the influence,” which would carry a penalty of no more than three years imprisonment and a license suspension for no more than one year.

Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin (D-Dist. 1, Providence) and Senators Erin P. Lynch (D-Dist. 31, Warwick), Leonidas P. Raptakis (D-Dist. 33, Coventry, East Greenwich, West Greenwich) and Stephen R. Archambault (D-Dist. 22, Smithfield, North Providence, Johnston) cosponsor the bill. Rep. Donna M. Walsh (D-Dist. 36, Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown, Westerly) sponsors a companion bill (2014-H 7147) in the House.


For more legislative news from the past week, check out the slideshow below. 


Related Slideshow: RI State Report: More News of the Week - 5/17/14

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Penalties for Texting While Driving

Responding to constituent complaints about dangerously distracted drivers who text while behind the wheel, President of the Senate M. Teresa Paiva Weed submitted legislation to increase penalties for texting while driving. The legislation, 2014-S-2678, which passed the Rhode Island Senate Friday, also increases penalties for minors under the age of 18 using a cell phone while driving.

“This legislation is about improving public safety. It strengthens existing law and will send a strong reminder to younger drivers to avoid distractions that are a frequent cause of accidents,” said Senate President Paiva Weed.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 10 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 who were involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the crash. The Federal Communications Commission reports that 11 percent of drivers aged 18 to 20 who were involved in an automobile accident and survived admitted they were sending or receiving texts when they crashed.

Rhode Island prohibited texting while driving in 2009. Under the legislation the Senate passed today, penalties would increase from $85 to $100 for a first offense; $100 to $150 for a second offense; and $125 to $250 for third and subsequent offenses.

Rhode Island prohibited minors under the age of 18 from cell phone use while driving in 2006. The legislation passed today increases penalties from $50 to $100 for a first offense; $50 to $150 for a second offense; and $100 to $250 for third and subsequent offenses.

The bill will now be sent to the House.

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Historic Tax Credit

Rep. David A. Bennett announced on Monday that a developer seeking to redevelop Pontiac Mills in Warwick have received notification that the $5 million in tax credits for which it applied through the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program is now available.

A developer doing business as Happy Mill, LLC applied in 2013 to the tax credit program, but had been turned down for lack of funding. However, since that time, more funding has become available.

The developer was notified in a letter from the Division of Taxation last week, and notified that it must apply within 90 days for certifications from the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission to proceed with the tax credit application.

“This is terrific news for the village of Pontiac,” said Representative Bennett (D-Dist. 20, Warwick, Cranston). “Pontiac Mills was once the heart that pumped life into this village, and this funding will help in restoring it to that position. It’s a historic, valuable site that deserves to be preserved, so it’ll be a great improvement for the neighborhood when it is once again a useful, beautiful, busy place that brings people to Warwick.”

The developer is proposing to rehabilitate the mill, located on Knight Street, for mixed-use development. A different part of the former mill complex was successfully redeveloped as the NYLO Hotel in 2008.

Built along the Pawtuxet River in 1863 by Robert and Benjamin Knight, the textile mill was the birthplace of the well-known “Fruit of the Loom” label.

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High-Stakes Testing for Public Schools

In a 29 to 5 vote, senators approved a bill this week (2014-S 2059A) that would amend the method by which the state assessment program would be implemented in public schools, providing that no state assessment would be used to determine a student’s ability to graduate from high school prior to the Class of 2017.

“I want to reiterate that this is not about ridding our public school system of standardized tests, which in the past have been useful data collection tools for pinpointing areas in need of improvement,” said Sen. Adam J. Satchell (D-Dist. 9, West Warwick), primary sponsor of the bill. “This is about taking the time to ensure that we don’t make the same mistakes with the new standardized exam that we did with the New England Common Assessment Program. The state needs time to make the proper adjustments to curricula or testing, if necessary, to ensure that we are not letting mountains of students fall through the cracks. What is one of the first stories taught to children in elementary school? The tortoise wins the race over the hare. The implementation of high-stakes testing was too hasty, and this legislation will slow it down. 

The New England Common Assessment Program, or NECAP, was tied to graduation requirements for this year’s graduating class as part of the Rhode Island Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s (RIDE) efforts to boost college preparedness and raise education standards. Next year, the state’s public schools are set to introduce a new high-stakes exam called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), a computer-based standardized test. Senator Satchell said there are currently a number of districts that do not have the technology or infrastructure to properly implement PARCC.

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Expansion of Broadband Access

Representative Linda Finn introduced legislation (2014-H 8136) on Wednesday to create a special legislative commission to study broadband services and accessibility, with the goal of identifying ways to improve access to high-speed Internet. Sen. Juan M. Pichardo has introduced similar legislation (2014-S 2827A) in the Senate.

The 14-member commission would be expected to:

  • Identify the current level of broadband service statewide, including connection speeds for sending and receiving data that will be reasonably needed by all citizens by 2015; 
  • Analyze the policies and actions necessary to eliminate obstacles to the investment in and the identification of areas in the state that currently lack the infrastructure necessary to support broadband service;
  • Explore opportunities for potential public/private sector partnerships and evaluate the various strategies, financing methods, and financial incentives used in other states and countries to support the deployment of high-speed broadband;
  • Review the security, vulnerability, and redundancy actions necessary to ensure the reliability of high-speed broadband;
  • Explore how wide dissemination of high-speed broadband could improve economic development and benefit educational institutions, health care institutions, community-based organizations and government institutions;
  • Assess the current public centers for broadband access as well as potential future plans to enhance access to underserved communities throughout the state.  

The commission is to include four representatives; four senators; and the state education commissioner, the Public Utilities Commission chairperson, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation executive director, the Chief Digital Officer of the Rhode Island Division of Information Technology, the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency director and the Department of Health director or their designees. It is to issue its findings to the General Assembly by March 31, 2015.

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DEM Freshwater Overseer

On Friday, the Senate approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Paul W. Fogarty to create a new position within the Department of Environmental Management (DEM) to oversee all freshwater lakes, streams and ponds in the state.

Senator Fogarty said he sponsored the bill because freshwater bodies are critical resources in the state, and having a person whose job it is to look out for them would help protect them.

“Especially in my district, but also all over the state, the lakes, ponds and rivers face threats like pollution and invasive species. We rely on these bodies of water for all kinds of recreation, for the beauty they bring to the environment, and for the water they hold that is a part of our ecosystem,” said Senator Fogarty (D-Dist. 23, Glocester, Burrillville, North Smithfield). “Having a person who oversees all of DEM’s efforts to protect freshwater bodies will ensure that the efforts are coordinated and efficient and will give Rhode Islanders assurance that all of our water resources are being well cared for.”

The legislation (2014-S 2688) would create the new position within the Water Resources Division of DEM. The legislation is supported by Save the Lakes, a statewide organization dedicated to preserving Rhode Island’s lakes, ponds and freshwater resources.


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