Colorado Felony DUI Bill Debate

This article refers to an outdated bill; For more information on the Felony DUI bill which was signed by the governor on June 6th, 2017, and is in effect August 9th, 2017, please visit this page.

Felony DUI Debate Agreements

In the Felony DUI debate broadcast March 22, 2015 on the 9News production Balance of Power, Mark Waller (sponsor of the 2014 Felony DUI bill) and Jay Tiftickjian (DUI attorney, author and expert) voiced their differing opinions on Colorado legislation HB 15-1043, an updated revision of the 2014 Felony DUI bill Mark Waller sponsored. The 2015 Felony DUI bill seeks to make repeat DUI offenders a felon, increases sentencing standards for DUIs, and requires an increase in government spending to be spent on prisons and Colorado court system.

Despite the difference of opinion between the politician and attorney, both agreed that treatment is the answer, and both agree that Colorado is a unique state. When Attorney Tiftickjian informed 9News listeners that there was no conclusive evidence that a felony DUI law deters repeat offenders despite 46 states having felony DUI bills, Mike Waller countered that Colorado was a unique state. Jay Tiftickjian had previously noted Colorado’s unique position on his website and his advocacy for improved treatment in previous interviews. Mark Waller agreed that treatment needs to be the answer.

“I certainly agree that treatment needs to be the answer.” – Mark Waller, 2014 Felony DUI Bill Sponsor

“This bill has absolutely no focus on treatment whatsoever. Our DUI treatment program was written in 1977.” – Jay Tiftickjian, Attorney

Unfortunately, the 2015 proposed Felony DUI bill includes no regulatory guidelines for treatment options. Jay Tiftickjian pointed out that we need to prevent first-time offenders from becoming multiple offenders to reduce DUI instances. To do that, legislation should focus on updating the current court-ordered treatment programs that were written back in 1977—more than three decades ago—before we go back to the “Drug War” mentality of the 80s.

70s-Style DUI Treatment Standards Need Updating

It’s easy to put the antiquated, but current DUI court-ordered treatment options into perspective. 1977 was the year the first human scan on an MRI prototype was made. Desktop computers were not yet introduced in 1977, and “.com” and “.gov” wouldn’t be around for another decade. The “Knowledge Economy” that sped up scientific and medical research due to the advancement of technology and communication hadn’t hit a high point. Patents went through mild waves of increases and decreases prior to 1970 but sped upwards like wildfire after desktop computers became mainstream in the 1980s. It wasn’t until 1988 that the brain receptor for THC in marijuana was found. While researchers were relishing new-found communication tools, legislators and sentencing commissioners were focused on the “Drug Wars.”

Mr. Tiftickjian pointed out that this Felony DUI bill is parallel to the severe sentencing mandates during the “Drug War” era, and that even Mr. Waller was a proponent of changing those laws to get people treatment.

[During the Drug War] “the government took people who were convicted of drug offenses and put them in prison. And, even Mr. Waller was a proponent of changing those laws, to lessen those offenses, to get people better treatment instead of locking them up. Now, we see that with drug reform, people are getting that treatment, and they’re not re-offending. We have specialized drug courts across the country that’s actually up to 35%, making it, so people aren’t reoffending.” – Attorney Jay Tiftickjian

Today, we know the Drug War was a failure, and public support favors a change in drug policy. The Attorney General of the United States has even called for reduced sentences for low-level drug offenders. We know that alcohol affects 100 receptors in the brain, it causes brain damage, and it makes us stupid. Alcohol and drugs are addictive, and addiction is a disease. The brain on alcohol registers short-term outcomes, not long-term. People drink and drive because they think they are okay to drive, and “they have to get home.” Their brain is not thinking rationally; intoxicating perceptions are associated with drinking and driving perceptions. Advances in health, science and technology created a new awareness. Alcohol and drug use are a public health problem.

Mark Waller may not be familiar with the available research on addiction and mental health. In the Felony DUI debate he stated:

“Driving Under the Influence is a Major Public Health Problem” CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGY REVIEW, 2006
“…there’s no incentive for them to get better. It’s easier to go to a year in the county jail than it is to overcome their addiction problem.” – Mark Waller, 2014 Felony DUI Bill Sponsor

[Repeat Offenders] “…they have obviously shown society that they’re not interested in becoming treated for this, addiction, so we need to put that into the law, in order to make them serious about overcoming this addiction problem… ” – Mark Waller, 2014 Felony DUI Bill Sponsor

To understand DUI and recidivism and how to prevent drivers from re-offending, one must understand and have the ability to comprehend the neurological and chemical processes involved in addiction. Addiction is a chronic illness. Relapses are expected. Treatment relapses have the same rates as asthma, diabetes, and hypertension.

Attorney Jay Tiftickjian recognizes that we need to treat the addicts and give them the tools and resources to receive this treatment. The cost of intensive treatment programs is often outside the financial means of the general public. Punishing people who cannot afford treatment and making them a felon is counter-productive to the goals of society.

“The problem is that we’re taking [millions of dollars], and we’re just funneling it into prison and felonies, and we’re not doing anything to get people help.” – Jay Tiftickjian, DUI Expert

Thinking About Deterrence Under the Influence

By Mark Waller’s statement, and the fact that he sponsored the 2014 version of the Felony DUI bill, we can see that Mark is a believer in punishment as a deterrence for repeat DUI offenders—as are other supporters of the bill. There is medical and statistical proof to prove Mark Waller and the Felony DUI supporters wrong.

If a law was created to make speeding a felony, there would be less speeding and safer roads, because there are rational thinkers driving. However, drivers under the influence, whether influenced by drugs or alcohol, are not rational decision makers. Alcohol impairs our judgment and decision making – drunk drivers do not stop and think about the penalties and the possibility of going to prison before driving.

“Elevated levels of norepinephrine increase impulsivity, which helps explain why we lose our inhibitions drinking. Drunken brains are primed to seek pleasure without considering the consequences.” – Joshua Gowin, Ph.D., (Neuroscience) Psychology Today, 2010

At the foundation of any law that increases punishment to encourage deterrence, is the belief that a criminal is a rational thinker. 21st century advances in technology, and the evolution of genetic and neurobiology research, have given us evidence that alcohol and drugs affect rational thinking. We know that addicts experience overwhelming unique brain neural and chemical brain changes that affect their decision making abilities to drink or do drugs, in ways that are different and more compulsive and impulsive than the person who can have one drink and stop. Recent studies demonstrate how decision making changes with the inclines and declines of BAC levels. An effective change in prevention policies has to focus on the intoxicated brain, and the brain that is under the influence of drugs, not the rational-thinking brain. Longer prison sentences are not a deterrent to the intoxicated brain.

Intervention, Not Prison

The general population and mental health professionals are well aware that addicts need intervention to get treatment. This is why drug courts and treatment centers have been put in place in lieu of prisons. A 2008 longitudinal study found that drug courts lower the rate of re-arrest (recidivism), and lower system costs. (A DUI Court is a type of Drug Court in Colorado.) Re-arrest rates for felons sent to prison are about 40%. For non-violent drug offenders and repeat DUI offenders, Drug Courts and treatment are recommended by policy makers.

The state of Colorado should expand the use of drug courts as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent drug offenders in order to maximize the social benefit of corrections policy as well as reducing the economic and social setbacks associated with incarceration. – Corrections Spending in Colorado, Institute for Public Policy Studies, University of Denver 2012

Drug and alcohol addicts (likely to be a repeat DUI offender subject to the proposed Felony sentencing), are also more likely to have other mental disorders. Who are we putting in our prisons? Are we merely hiding Colorado’s problem—a neglect in the budget for mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation?

Public Safety

Prisons are not created to treat the mentally ill, mental institutions and addiction centers are. Advocates of the Felony DUI bill claim keeping the offender in jail will keep them from driving. But so will keeping a non-violent offender in a medical treatment center, as long as we don’t go backwards to the mentality of the 1800s. As of June 2013, the majority of Colorado’s prison population had moderate to severe needs for substance abuse treatment. If we stop that substance abuse early, crimes across the state of Colorado will be reduced, including repeat DUI offenses. In the long-term, it is more dangerous to put non-violent repeat DUI offenders in prison, only to release them and have them repeat the crime. Treating them at an addiction treatment institution and putting them on a modern long-term treatment plan with frequent monitoring would result in long-term public safety. Colorado must get to the root of the problem, and stop playing around with a wet Band-Aid.

Jay Tiftickjian also voiced his stance that increasing law enforcement is more effective than longer prison sentences. Studies have shown that certainty is a greater deterrent than severity, and Jay Tiftickjian is certain he doesn’t want the Felony DUI bill to pass.

Regarding Colorado’s surplus of money going to fund prisons

“I’d rather see it spent on treatment, on enforcement, I’d rather see more police officers out there enforcing these laws, so these people are getting pulled over so we have less fatalities.” – Jay Tiftickjian

Checkpoints work to prevent DUI injuries and fatalities because they are an immediate threat. Prison is a long-term threat that the mind under the influence isn’t going to process rationally. The general public is not aware of sentencing guidelines for each and every crime, only that a crime does, or does not, mean prison. (You can get a prison sentence for a DUI.) If you injure or kill someone under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it is already felony. (See Colorado Revised Statutes under Title 18.)

Where Should Colorado’s Pot of Gold Go?

Mike Waller stated that the Felony DUI bill would take up 3/10 of 1% of Colorado’s excess budget. A seemingly small amount, but not when you consider his context was a fraction of around 800 million dollars. The numbers change as the Felony DUI bill passes through revisions, suffice it to say the Felony DUI Bill is taking millions of dollars out of taxpayer hands. (Estimates have ranged from 8 million to 17 million.) Shouldn’t such a bill help the taxpayers?

Investing in Health and Rehabilitation is long overdue, and is key to reducing repeat offender DUIs. Since Colorado’s excess money is largely from legalizing marijuana, doesn’t it makes sense for the state to invest in health and rehabilitation measures, and make those a part of sentencing reform for repeat DUI offenders?

Colorado has the fantastic option of investing significant amounts of money into legislation that changes the landscape of the future. What are we going to choose? To invest in a Colorado that repeats failed experiments and ignores scientific fact, or invest in the long-term safety and well-being of Colorado? Shouldn’t Colorado be a leader in DUI prevention and reform?

Multiple studies show that raising taxes on alcohol reduces DUI incidences, but the general population and the restaurant and bar industries are unlikely to support such a hike. What if the government took the millions of dollars being spent on the Felony DUI Bill and provided incentives for restaurants and bars to offer free transportation to individuals purchasing three or more drinks? Binge drinking accounts for half of the nation’s alcohol-related deaths, and is common among active military personnel.

On the near horizon, are cars with alcohol sensors. An inexpensive steering wheel sensor to detect when a driver falls asleep has been patented, and driverless cars for the masses might not be that far away. If we know that prison is not a deterrent, and we know alcohol and drug addiction is a public health issue, why would we turn repeat offenders into felons and hurt Colorado’s economy and future safety instead of helping it?

Colorado’s Felony DUI bill needs to be locked up for life, and a new bill based on 21st century knowledge needs to be written to reduce repeat offender DUIs. If Colorado is a unique leader and treatment is necessary, as both Mark Waller and Jay Tiftickjian agree, then why aren’t we proposing innovative prevention and rehabilitation strategies for drunk and drugged driving? We can start with modernizing DUI treatment alternatives, and using the law enforcement sobriety checkpoint system that we already know works to reduce DUIs.


Tiftickjian Law Firm Felony DUI History Collection

History of Colorado Felony DUI – “A Short History of Colorado’s Felony DUI Bills and Laws
History of Colorado Felony DUI – Part 1 “Which Came First? The Felony or the DUI?
History of Colorado Felony DUI – Part 2 “The Rough Road to Freedom” (Laws and Independence, the 1700’s)
History of Colorado Felony DUI – Part 3 “Colorado, Felonies and The First DUI

A MADD Idea: Eliminating Drunk Driving

Eliminating Drunk Driving: MADD 2015 Report Examines State Progress – Colorado Shines with Exemplary DUI Laws that Reduce Drunk Driving


Felony DUI in the Press

KOA Radio Show – Is a Felony DUI a Good Idea? “Jay Tiftickjian Guest on Radio Show Topic: Colorado Felony DUI
Colorado Felony DUI Bill Debate – Jay Tiftickjian and Mark Waller Agree Is Treatment the Answer? Yes – both agree.