WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — Some Rhode Island lawmakers and advocates are looking to stiffen the penalties for people caught driving under the influence with children in the vehicle.
The Senate Judiciary Committee reviewed a new bill Tuesday night that would increase possible jail time to up to two years, would fine a driver up to $5,000, and could result in loss of a license for up to two years for those charged with driving under the influence with a child under 13 years old in the vehicle.
Lawmakers met just a week after a West Warwick man pleaded not guilty to driving under the influence with a 20-month-old baby in the vehicle. Richard Rego was released on $1,000 personal recognizance.
In 2016, 1,233 children died in car crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of those, 214 children were killed in drunk driving crashes. More than half of the children were riding in the car with the drunk driver involved.
Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin is sponsoring the bill for the second time. The first time she introduced the bill last year, it passed the Senate, but never made it out of the committee in the House.
“It’s ridiculous, it’s wrong. You’re going to be punished if you drive with a child in the car while drunk,” Goodwin said. “We think felony enhancement would bring great deterrence to drunk drivers with children in their car.”
Coventry Rep. Robert Nardolillo told Eyewitness News that he is in support of the proposed penalties.
“Drinking and driving is illegal, but now there’s child endangerment we’re talking about at this time. This puts them in check and that’s really what we have to do,” Nardolillo said.
Nardolillo submitted similar legislation in the House. It was held for further study in February.
Several lawmakers testified in favor the bill, saying it’s a step in the right direction.
“Anybody that’s inebriated and puts a child in the car, I’ve got no problem, lock them up and throw away the key. I’ve got no problem with that,” Sen. Frank Lombardi said.
While no one testified against the bill, the Public Defender’s Office did ask lawmakers to think on it.
“When we leave here, we will all have a false sense of security that we did something about something that is a problem, and there’s no doubt it is a problem,” Mike DiLauro of the Public Defender’s Office said. “But I think we’ll have a false sense of security that we addressed the problem by doing this.”
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, if the bill becomes a law, Rhode Island will be the first state in New England to have a felony child endangerment bill.