Time runs short for closing BUI loophole

Published 11:32am Thursday, April 3, 2014

With only three legislative days left, 19th Circuit District Attorney Randall Houston is pushing to keep a popular bill to close the loophole for alcohol related boating deaths and injuries from being once again forgotten in the last minute Statehouse logjam.

Versions of the bill — which would make the penalty for killing or injuring someone while driving a boat under the influence the same as a DUI death or injury on the highways — have been passed in Alabama’s House of Representatives and Senate. But either the Sen. Bryan Taylor-sponsored SB 89 or Rep. Paul Beckman-sponsored HB 58 needs to be passed in the opposite Statehouse chamber.

“We’ve tried for four years to get this through,” Houston said as he prepared to spend Tuesday on Goat Hill lobbying legislators to get one bill or the other on the agenda. “Everyone agrees the law needs to be consistent for the waterways or the highways. We just need an up-or-down vote. I’d be surprised if anyone votes against it.”

Both version of the bill call for a minimum charge of first-degree assault and a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Currently, if someone kills someone while drunk behind the wheel of a boat, the toughest charge available to prosecutors is homicide by vessel, an unclassified felony.

Neither John Faulk, Patrick Cumbie or Brian Alan Little, who were all convicted of homicide by vessel on county waterways over the last several years, served more than 18 months in county jail, Houston said.

Houston said he has no preference between the two versions. One difference is that Beckman added an amendment — “just a comma here, the word ‘vessel’ there,” he said — to Taylor’s bill. So passing Beckman’s bill in the Senate would be the most expedient method. If the House were to pass SB 89, she said, it would have to go back to the Senate so that body could sign off on the amended version.

Beckman said he’d like to see his bill clear the Senate because he’s worked to gain support for the bill, adding 35 cosponsors to the measure.

“The important thing is that the bill passes because it’s needed to rectify a bad situation,” he said Tuesday. “It’s not about the individuals and who gets credit at this point.”

Taylor, who has pushed for the bill the last three years, said he was still working to achieve passage in the House as well as encouraging the bill to get to the floor of the Senate.

Beckman expressed frustration that once again a bill that had zero opposition has found it difficult to get traction for final passage in the opposite chamber.

“It’s sad that it’s a bill that was passed at the beginning of the session and now we’re in the last three days and it hasn’t made it through,” he said.

Houston said the loophole may seem like a minor issue, but “if you are a family member of someone killed or seriously injured on the water, it’s a very big deal.”

Michael Haslam was killed near Holiday Shores in 2006 when Faulk — who was found to be intoxicated — plowed into the pontoon boat Haslam was driving. Donald Tatum, 62 of Pratt­ville, died in 2008 when a runabout driven by Cumbie ran through a group of swimmers in open water around a boat on Lake Martin, injuring several others.

Ashley Williams died when she fell off the front of pontoon boat driven by Brian Alan Little near Kowaliga Bay on Lake Martin in 2012.

Houston was especially outraged that, despite being convicted of taking another person’s life, none of the three appear as felons in background checks, due to the “unclassified” nature of the charge under which they were convicted.

“If you’re treated one way on the roadway, you should be treated the same on the waterway because they’re both creating a very dangerous situation,” Houston said. “Especially here in the 19th circuit, where we have so many waterways and we see more and more people enjoying them.

“Four years is way too long for something that’s so simple.”

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