In its second try, the Senate quietly passed a bill allowing Virginians to lawfully drive while intoxicated on their own property and adjoining property after a similar bill was killed by the House in 2018.
Sen. Richard Stuart, R-King George, originally introduced the legislation in 2018 to clarify that the state law against driving under the influence applies only to public roadways and that people can’t be charged for drinking in a vehicle on their property.
But one Valley senator, who voted for the bill in 2018 and against it in 2020, said the bill’s description doesn’t match up with what it does.
“An editorial on it pointed out that it was more than a drunk lawn mower bill,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Rockingham.
Obenshain was one of the 37 senators in 2018 to move the bill forward, but one of the even fewer to vote against the bill in 2020.
In 2018, former Sen. Richard Black, R-Leesburg, and Sens. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, and Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, voted against the bill. On Tuesday, Deeds and Ebbin cast their vote in favor of the bill.
Obenshain was joined by Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover, to vote in opposition. Obenshain also was the lone senator to vote against the bill during a Senate Judiciary hearing.
Despite the change in vote, Obenshain said his views did not change.
“I probably made a mistake and voted for it in a rush of bills,” he said. “It was an error. I know I voted against it in other years.”
Obenshain said he was concerned the bill would undermine drunken driving laws and when the bill was being presented, there were no examples used of that law being prosecuted on personal property.
“The concern was not about someone sitting in the back seat of their car listening to the radio [drinking], but also it may limit the ability of law enforcement in a Walmart parking lot or somewhere else when it was clear they had to get somewhere somehow,” he said.
Obenshain said he was happy to stand with law enforcement and Mothers Against Drunk Driving to oppose the legislation.
Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, said the bill would divide Virginia’s DUI laws, effectively communicating that it is “OK to drive drunk here, but not here.”
“[The bill] would appear to be a ‘solution’ in search of a problem as I know of no court dockets in the commonwealth swollen with persons regularly being arrested for drunken driving on their residential property,” he said. “[It] has the potential to jeopardize the appropriate penalty should a drunken driver kill someone on their own residential property.”
Erickson said the timing of the bill was “ill-timed” as the number of drunken driving deaths declined nationally in 2018, but went up by 12.1% in Virginia, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles 2018 Virginia Traffic Crash Facts report.
Erickson also pointed out that 46% of fatally injured all-terrain vehicle drivers in the United States each year had a blood alcohol concentration of .08 or higher, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute.
In its third chance at life since the bill was killed in a Senate Courts of Justice Committee in 2018 and brought back before eventually being killed by the House Courts of Justice subcommittee, Stuart’s bill is expected to go to the same House committee to see if it will move forward.
Delegates who killed the bill included Todd Gilbert, R-Mount Jackson; Rob Bell, R-Albemarle, and former Del. Ben Cline, R-Lexington.
Bell remains a member of the House Courts of Justice.
“I suppose anything is possible,” Obenshain said. “I hope that our folks in the House Courts of Justice slow it down and take a second look at it.”