U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice wants other states to adopt New York’s stiff penalties for drunken driving with children in the car with the threat of losing federal funding if they don’t.
The Garden City Democrat plans to introduce a bill in Congress next month to require states to adopt versions of New York’s Child Passenger Protection Act, the 2009 legislation known as Leandra’s Law, making it a felony to drive drunk with a child in the car and putting drivers who do so on child abuse registries.
If the bill, titled the Prevent Impaired Driving Child Endangerment Act, is approved, states that do not comply with the law by 2018 would lose federal transportation money.
“While most states have taken some action to crack down on those who commit this crime, Leandra’s Law in New York is the toughest and most comprehensive child endangerment law in the country, and this bill will make it the national standard,” Rice said in a statement.
Rice’s bill would require states to adopt statutes charging drivers with a felony punishable by up to four years in prison if they drive drunk or under the influence of drugs with a passenger younger than 15 years old.
If convicted, those drivers would have to get a substance abuse or mental health assessment and undergo treeatment if necessary, and install an ignition interlock system in their cars, which requires the driver to give a breath sample to check for intoxication before allowing the car to start.
If a convicted driver is the parent, guardian or custodian of the child passenger, the state law must require that they be added to that state’s child abuse registry, according to Rice’s proposal.
The U.S. secretary of transportation would withhold 1 percent of federal funding through the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Program from states that don’t pass such laws by Oct. 1, 2018, 3 percent of funding for states that don’t comply by Oct. 1, 2019, and 5 percent of funding for failing to comply by Oct. 1, 2020, and each year thereafter.
Combating drunken driving was Rice’s signature intiative when she was Nassau County district attorney from 2006 to 2015. She drastically increased Nassau’s conviction rate for drunken drivers and publicly backed a 2013 state law closing loopholes in Leandra’s Law.
Her federal proposal has support from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility, two national advocacy groups that fight drunken driving.
“Child endangerment is not only unconscionable, it’s a crime and a form of child abuse,” Colleen Sheehey-Church, MADD’s national president, said in a statement. “Children don’t have a voice or a choice when riding with an adult, and they should never be in danger from drunk driving, especially by those entrusted to keep them safe.”
Some 209 children age 14 and younger were killed in drunken driving crashes in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Forty-six states have statutes punishing drunken driving with a child in the car, but only seven, including New York, classify the crime as a felony, according to a 2009 MADD report. The organization calls Leandra’s Law a model child endangerment statute.
Stephanie Selloni, a Garden City-based criminal defense attorney, said a greater emphasis on treating alcohol abuse would do more good than strict punishments that can hamstring offenders’ ability to get jobs and move on with their lives.
“The fact that it’s a felony and there’s no way of getting rid of that, it’s a detrimental effect on a person’s life,” Selloni said.