How much is too much?

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By Tom Gantert
Jackson Legal News
 
Jackson Attorney Jerry Engle questions whether the push to lower the “driving while intoxicated” limit from .10 blood alcohol content to .08 in the last decade isn’t tied to money on a couple of levels.
Because Michigan drivers found guilty of a first offense drunk driving of .08 face fines as much as $2,500 over two years, the state could lose much needed federal assistance if it raises the legal limit back to .10.
“Unfortunately, I think it has become a money thing,” said Engle, who handles as many as 100 drunk driving cases a year.
In 2003, the state of Michigan lowered its threshold for drunk driving from .10 blood alcohol content to .08. At the same time, the legislature enacted costly “driver responsibility fees” that hit first offense drunk drivers with $2,000 in new fines in addition to a fine of up to $500 already in place.
Now, two legislative bills are being considered that would maintain the limit at .08. If the bills aren’t passed, the limit automatically goes back to .10. But many doubt that will happen because not abiding by the federal standard of .08 would put federal dollars in jeopardy.
The federal government has given Michigan about $1 billion a year for its highway program, according to an analysis by the House Fiscal Agency. The Federal Highway Administration would have withheld 6 percent of the money it gives Michigan for certain programs if the state didn’t enact the .08 legal limit.
“All bets are that it is going to stay .08,” said Dan Geherin, an Ann Arbor defense attorney.
Geherin said he doesn’t have a preference for what the level should be for being drunk while driving a motor vehicle.
“Everyone wants to see fewer drunk drivers and fewer accidents,” he said. “But you do get a lot of people at .08 that show no overt signs of being affected by the alcohol. Just that extra buffer does matter to some people … It’s unfortunate that someone who gets a .08 is often unaware they are over the limit.”
Engle agreed with Geherin that many people may not know they are considered legally drunk while driving at .08.
Engle said that years ago when the limit was .15, there was no doubt drivers were intoxicated.
“I think people can be at .08 and have no idea that they are .08,” he said.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka said he is happy to keep the limit at .08.
“I’m all in favor of doing whatever we can to prevent drunk driving on our roadways,” Jarzynka said.
But he questioned the reach of the federal government’s authority to mandate what other states do.
In 2003,  14 states set their limits at .10.  Today, all states are at .08, largely due to the threat of losing federal money.
“Do we want to respect state rights?” Jarzynka asked.
Jackson Defense Attorney Al Brandt said the distinction between .08 and .10 “was not worth worrying about.”
“You are going to arrest someone for weaving or bad driving regardless if they are at .08 or .10,” Brandt said. “It’s a distinction without a difference.”

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