The Ohio Legislature began considering a bill Wednesday that would toughen drunken driving laws, a day after a Barberton man with 20 convictions for driving drunk was sentenced to 16 1/2 years in prison without parole.
Sen. Tim Grendell, (R-Chesterland), said his bill is in response to the 2006 deaths of two Hiram College students in a crash caused by a drunk driver who had 12 driving under the influence convictions.
"It is a privilege, it is not a right to drive," said Robert Chamberlain, of Kirtland, whose 18-year-old daughter, Grace, was killed in that crash. "It could happen to your kids."
In Huron County, about 25 percent of the fatalities in the last three years were related to alcohol, said Lt. Jim Bryan of the state Highway Patrol's Norwalk post.
"Any additional leverage from the Legislature would help us reduce that number. Twenty-five percent is too high of a number," the post commander said.
Norwalk troopers made 221 DUI arrests in 2006, an average of about 20 each month.
"That fluctuates with the seasons. (We're) busier in the summers than in the winters," Bryan explained.
In a Summit County Common Pleas Court hearing Tuesday, Barberton resident Jess R. Brown, 51, was given the maximum sentence for his 19th and 20th DUI convictions and various other traffic offenses, including driving without a license.
"Not only do you have the worst DUI record I've ever read, you apparently have the worst DUI record for anyone in the state of Ohio," Judge Patricia Cosgrove told Brown. "It's only fair and fitting then that you receive the worst sentence."
The Ohio Department of Public Safety has said Brown set a state record with his 20th drunken driving conviction.
His first conviction was in 1977 and he lost his license for life in 1991. Before Tuesday, Brown was in and out of jail on other drunken driving convictions.
Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Bevan Walsh is among those pushing Ohio to strengthen its drunken driving laws, including by requiring those drivers previously convicted of DUIs submit to Breathalyzer tests when stopped by police.
"Jess Brown's days of drinking and driving are over and our streets are safer as a result," Walsh said. "Someone like him needs to be locked up for a long time."
State troopers have access to a suspect's complete driving history, which includes DUI convictions, by running a driver's license through a computer database in the officer's cruiser. The Ohio Revised Code includes an "implied consent" related to traffic stops, meaning that people with Ohio driver's license automatically are giving permission to submit to a field sobriety test.
"Primarily those are breath tests," Bryan said, but they also could be urine or blood tests.
If a first time DUI suspect refuses to be tested, the Bureau of Motor Vehicles (BMV) will take away the person's license for one year.
"That time period increases for repeat offenders," Bryan said.
"The more times people get in trouble, they tend to refuse," Huron County Prosecutor Russell Leffler said.
Authorities have the option of obtaining a search warrant to draw blood, but Leffler said that's a "cumbersome process" because the officers have to find a judge while the suspect remains in custody. Once officers obtain the warrant, a qualified medical worker, such as a nurse or paramedic, must draw the person's blood.
Bryan believes Grendell's bill could helpful for law enforcement agencies in tackling DUIs.
"This may very well strengthen the administrative penalties imposed by the BMV or the criminal penalties imposed by the courts. Either way, increased penalties for repeat (DUI) offenders is a good thing," the post commander said.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Associated Press contributed to this story.