The Kentucky Supreme Court on Thursday upheld the controversial application of a 2016 state law that imposes tougher penalties on drunken drivers by expanding the “look-back” period for previous driving-under-the-influence convictions from five years to 10 years.
The legislature expanded the look-back period in 2016 after hearing testimony from families who lost loved ones to drunken drivers who avoided tougher prison sentences reserved for those with multiple convictions within five years. The law’s sponsor, state Sen. Dennis Parrett, D-Elizabethtown, said many habitual drunken drivers racked up multiple convictions within a decade but not necessarily within five years.
In two Warren County cases, the court unanimously ruled that the state can retroactively impose the 10-year look-back period on defendants even when that period includes DUI guilty pleas the defendants entered “in ignorance of legislative changes years in the future.” The defendants in those cases are Joshua Deante Jackson and Telly Savalas Denson.
“Upon review of the 2009 and 2011 guilty pleas, we agree that Jackson and Denson were not promised, nor were they reasonably induced to believe, that their pleas in these cases would never be used to enhance the penalty for a subsequent DUI conviction more than five years in the future,” Justice Daniel Venters wrote for the court.
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“The plea agreements clearly explained that DUI penalties ‘will be increased with each conviction,’ but neither agreement promised a time limit to the period for which the conviction could be used as a penalty enhancement of future DUI convictions,” Venters wrote. “The only reference to a five-year period is the section of the plea agreement that accurately details the range of penalties applicable at the time of the plea. That provision does not promise that DUI convictions can only be used to enhance penalties of future offenses for five years.”
A “huge backlog” of DUI cases has been growing across Kentucky for the last year while judges, prosecutors and defense lawyers awaited guidance on whether past convictions from between the five- and 10-year look-back period can be considered, said Fred Peters, a Lexington criminal-defense lawyer.
“Every district judge that I’ve talked to has told me they’ve got cases piling up while they’ve been trying to get further instruction on how to interpret this law,” Peters said. “I believe that I have 10 or 15 DUI cases myself right now sitting in abeyance.”