Laura's Law: North Carolina Gets Tougher on Repeat Drunk Drivers

North Carolinians with previous drunk driving convictions should be especially mindful of how much alcohol they consume at this year's holiday parties. On December 1, 2011, North Carolina's new drunk driving law, known as Laura's Law, takes effect. DWI sentences for repeat offenders under the new law will be sobering.

Drunk driving is a tragic problem in North Carolina - the numbers tell the story:

  • In 2009, 28 percent of North Carolina vehicular-accident fatalities were alcohol related (363 of 1,314), according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
  • North Carolina Department of Transportation's annual Booze It and Lose It safety campaign counted 2,957 DWI charges over Labor Day weekend 2011.

The statistics became real in July 2010 for 17-year-old Lowell, N.C., resident Laura Fortenberry, who died when the vehicle she was in was struck head on by a repeat drunk driver. The driver had multiple prior DWI offenses and was reportedly drunk when Fortenberry's accident occurred. He pled guilty to second-degree murder and will spend 21 to 28 years in prison.

Fortenberry's mother and former state Rep. Wil Neumann, R-Gastonia, drafted new DWI provisions aimed at repeat offenders. Laura's Law passed unanimously in the legislature and was signed by Governor Bev Perdue.

North Carolina DWI sentencing law is based in part on the presence of grossly aggravating factors, which include most prior DWI convictions. The more aggravating factors found to have existed at the time of the accident, the harsher the required sentence. Laura's Law will require more serious punishment when three or more aggravating factors are found.

The new three-factor punishment level will impose an optional fine of up to $10,000 (up from $4,000) and a mandatory prison sentence of one to three years (up from 30 days to two years) without parole. The last four months of this sentence will be served as supervised release with an ankle monitor that measures alcohol levels through the skin. If the offender violates the ankle monitor requirement or consumes alcohol during the supervised period, he or she will be returned to prison.

There are some narrow provisions for good-time-served credit and possible probation.

A defendant subject to the new punishment level described above may be required to have an ignition interlock (a device that controls whether a car will start depending on whether the driver passes a breath test) installed to drive after license revocation.

A related law also effective December 1 redefines the grossly aggravating factor about the characteristics of vehicle passengers involved in a drunk driving accident. It will be a grossly aggravating factor if the passenger is under 18 (up from 16 currently), has the mental capacity of a child under 18 or has a physical disability that prevents him or her from exiting the car independently.

This is only a brief look at Laura's Law. If you or a loved one faces North Carolina driving-while-impaired charges, contact an experienced criminal defense attorney as early in the process as possible. You will need skilled, knowledgeable representation to protect your legal and constitutional rights, and be sure you are treated fairly.

Especially for someone with a previous record, the price of a conviction is about to get even steeper in North Carolina.