- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

RICHMOND (AP) — The House of Delegates passed several additional measures yesterday aimed at toughening Virginia’s drunken-driving laws, including a bill that would allow the state to seize a person’s car after a third DUI conviction.

The House has passed more than a dozen bills this year as part of an aggressive legislative package that would give Virginia some of the harshest penalties for drunken driving in the country.

Most of the legislation considered yesterday, the final day for the House and Senate to act on their own bills, passed by overwhelming majorities, with the exception of Delegate Robert F. McDonnell’s car-forfeiture measure.

Opponents initially killed the bill on a 51-49 vote, arguing that it unfairly punished spouses of repeat offenders, who stand to lose what could be the family’s only car.

However, proponents resurrected the bill and passed it 52-48 after urging legislators to consider the serious dangers posed by repeat offenders.

But even those opposed to the car-forfeiture bill said they thought toughened penalties were a step in the right direction.

“It goes beyond the mere bills,” said Delegate Kenneth R. Melvin, Portsmouth Democrat. “This is sending a clear message to the judiciary about how seriously we are taking this.”

Mr. McDonnell, Virginia Beach Republican, said that was the impetus for his bills this session, many of which contain mandatory minimum sentences or fines. He said courts traditionally have gone easier on drunken drivers when given the discretion to impose jail time.

“These bills allow more effective prosecution, stronger and more certain punishment and a stronger civil hammer,” he said. “We are making a statement about increased penalties and the judges will follow.”

Other measures passed yesterday would extend the period of time police have to administer a blood or breath test after a DUI stop, impose mandatory minimum sentences if someone is injured as a result of a DUI offense, and increase mandatory prison time for repeat offenders.

The House approved a bill that would pay Julius Earl Ruffin $750,000 in restitution for the 21 years he spent in prison for a rape that DNA evidence later proved he didn’t commit. The Senate has approved $1.5 million.

Both sides now will negotiate in a conference committee on a sum that likely will be between the two. The measure overwhelmingly passed the House, 87-13, though some felt Mr. Ruffin wasn’t offered enough compensation.

Another bill passed by the House yesterday seeks to create a fixed amount for future claims bills. Delegate Robert Tata’s legislation would give wrongfully convicted people $70 for every day they spend in jail, up to a maximum of $500,000.

In addition, every prisoner would get $15,000 upon release in a “transition assistance grant..”

Mr. Ruffin, 50, was convicted in 1982 of raping a Norfolk woman and sentenced to five life terms. He was released last February after DNA testing indicated another man committed the crime.

The Senate and the House passed competing proposals that would boost funding for a state program that pays the medical expenses of babies injured at birth.

About 75 children are enrolled in the Birth-Related Neurological Injury Compensation Program, which is about $140 million short of the money needed to provide for their lifetime medical care.

The Senate voted 39-1 to pass legislation sponsored by Sen. Jeannemarie Devolites, Fairfax Republican, to increase the fees doctors and hospitals pay into the program.

A bill sponsored by Mr. Tata, Virginia Beach Republican, also would raise the fees. But his bill also would bar babies under 4.4 pounds. That would reduce the number of children eligible for the program by about one-third.

Mr. Tata’s bill passed 98-1.

The General Assembly established the program 17 years ago to make medical-malpractice insurance more affordable. Malpractice suits cannot be filed for children accepted into the program.

Legislation that would have barred localities from enacting “living wage” ordinances requiring contractors to meet minimum pay levels for work done for local governments died in the Senate.

The bill was defeated on a 17-23 vote after critics derided it as an effort “to micromanage local governments” and deny workers a chance to chase their dreams.

Sen. Frank W. Wagner, Virginia Beach Republican, said his bill was a simple constitutional question of localities doing what they are not empowered to do under the Dillon Rule, the principle that cities and counties in Virginia may do only what the state explicitly allows them to do.

Sen. Richard Saslaw, Fairfax County Democrat, said the bill came about because the Virginia Chamber of Commerce “didn’t like what was going on in Arlington, Alexandria and Charlottesville,” the three localities that have adopted living-wage requirements. Such requirements allow localities to require that companies pay their employees more than $8.50 per hour for work done on certain contracts.

The state minimum wage is $5.15 an hour.

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