After years of debate, Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-Colorado) signed a bill Monday that creates a felony charge for a fourth drunk driving offense.
Currently, it's possible to get an unlimited number of DUI convictions in Colorado without receiving more than a short stint in county jail.
"We're one of four states that hadn't done this," Hickenlooper said. "Now there are only three."
Under the new law, a fourth strike would be subject to possible conviction as a felony, punishable by up to six years in state prison and a fine up to $500,000.
The law would apply to small percentage of the state's more than 24,000 cases of impaired driving each year.
Victims of DUI accidents and family members argued for the measure, saying that the cost of keeping people behind bars is better than losing innocent people to drunk driving.
Opponents of the measure argued that the money would be better spent on more intensive treatment.
Hickenlooper expects the law to discourage repeat offenders from reaching four strikes.
"The other folks, even after classes, courses, and putting devices on their cars, hey still find ways to drive drunk," Hickenlooper said. "I think at a certain point we can't let them drive. It's irresponsible for society to leave those people on the road."
State lawmakers spent a lot of time and energy haggling over the details. Here some of the key points:
THE FELONY ISN'T MANDATORY
While it's anticipated that many four-time offenders will be sentenced to prison, judges will have discretion to mete out the punishment they think best fits each case.
The law states that the court "must determine that incarceration is the most suitable option given the facts and circumstances of the case, including the defendant's willingness to participate in treatment."
The same section of the law also requires a finding that treatment appears unlikely to work or would present an "unacceptable risk to public safety" in order to impose felony punishment.
THE FOUR STRIKES DON'T HAVE TO BE IN COLORADO
First, let's clear up what counts as a strike against a person under the new law.
If you have three prior convictions for DUI, DWAI, vehicular assault, and/or vehicular homicide— a simple DUI in Colorado could become a felony.
The law also states that offenses anywhere else in the United States which would be classified as those crimes in Colorado also count against an offender.
IT WILL COST TAXPAYERS MONEY
Prison time isn't cheap.
The legislature's nonpartisan staff estimates 117 people will end up in state prisons during the first year of the new law. That comes with a cost to state prisons of $2.6 million.
By year three, it's estimated that 426 people will be locked up in prisons for repeat DUI offenses with an annual cost of $9.4 million to prisons.
The costs are offset somewhat by fees the state collects under the law and other minor changes made in the law.
THE LAW INCLUDES PREVENTION
In addition to language encouraging courts to look at addiction treatment for offenders, the law also takes steps designed to prevent repeat drunk drivers from reaching four strikes.
When repeat offenders have their drivers licenses revoked, they'll be required to get a conditional license requiring them to use and interlock device, which requires a breath test before allowing the car to start, for two to five years.
Previously, this was a one-year requirement.
THE BILL CAN STILL BE BLOCKED
It's possible for Coloradans to block the new law from taking effect by filing a ballot question to challenge it before Aug. 5.
That's because lawmakers deliberately decided not to include what's called a "safety clause" in the language of the bill.
Without a declaration that the legislature deems the law necessary for public safety, a referendum on the ballot is possible.
It's highly unusual for changes to criminal law to omit the safety clause, a hint at the level of compromise it took to pass the measure.
For contrast, the governor has already signed bills into law this year dealing with taxes on dyed diesel, mercantile licensing standards, and fees for state parks – all of which included safety clauses.
If nobody files a petition against the measure by Aug. 5, it will become state law.
If a petition is filed, the bill would become law unless a majority of voters decide against it.