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Maegen Spindler, 25, is pictured in this photo before she was killed by an allegedly drunken driver in July in Pickstown. (Photo courtesy of Spindler family)
Maegen Spindler, 25, is pictured in this photo before she was killed by an allegedly drunken driver in July in Pickstown. (Photo courtesy of Spindler family)

Governor's office deflects criticism on DUI reform

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news Mitchell, 57301
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

A spokesman for Gov. Dennis Daugaard is defending a decision not to pursue reforms to South Dakota's drunken driving laws, following criticism from the father of a woman killed by an allegedly drunken driver.

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Gregg Spindler, of Cazenovia, N.Y., is the father of 25-year-old Maegan Spindler, who was killed along with her co-worker, 46-year-old Robert Klumb, when they were hit by an allegedly drunken driver while walking across a hotel parking lot in July in Pickstown.

Spindler, a professional statistician, has spent the months since the crash advocating for reforms to South Dakota's drunken driving laws using evidence-based and data-driven recommendations presented to various officials in South Dakota, including Daugaard.

In a guest column published recently in The Daily Republic, Spindler expressed disappointment in the governor and other lawmakers, who have not been eager to commit to any comprehensive reforms.

The Daily Republic sought a response from the governor's office and received one from Tony Venhuizen, the governor's director of policy and communications.

"South Dakota already has DUI laws that are stringent compared to much of the nation," Venhuizen said. "Our responsibility is to ask whether changes would be justified by evidence and by data."

In 2011, there were 458 crashes involving at least one driver with a blood-alcohol content above the legal limit for driving, 0.08, in South Dakota, according to the state Department of Public Safety. That's 2.6 percent of all reported crashes that year.

The number of crashes involving drunken drivers increased nearly 52 percent in the state between 2007 and 2011, though the number of fatalities from those crashes decreased slightly.

Senate Bill 70 -- legislation that made sweeping reforms to the state's criminal justice system -- became law last year, but made only minor changes to drunken driving laws by classifying sixth-offense driving under the influence or greater as aggravated, which makes it a violent offense, and by making fourth-offense DUI a more severe felony.

The overall aim of the law was to curb the state's swelling prison population by reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in prison, by softening some penalties and allowing more of them to serve their sentences in their communities rather than behind bars.

One of Spindler's suggested reforms, reducing the legal blood-alcohol limit for driving from 0.08, could unintentionally diminish DUI enforcement by spreading the state's resources too thin, Venhuizen said.

"Increasing penalties doesn't always have the intended effect," he said.

The idea of lowering the legal limit hasn't found much support in the Legislature in the past, Venhuizen noted.

Spindler also proposed high-visibility enforcement using regular, routine sobriety checkpoints in every county in the state in an effort aimed at deterrence and cultural change.

In his column, Spindler noted that the South Dakota Highway Patrol has agreed to double its number of DUI checkpoints to 400 in 2014. Though an increase, it's not to the extent Spindler desires, as he noted it means on an average day only one spot in the state will have an active checkpoint.

Venhuizen said high-visibility enforcement has become an emphasis recently in South Dakota, but the state lacks the resources to ramp up its enforcement to such a vast degree.

Spindler's suggestion for roadside suspension or revocation of driver's licenses and immediate vehicle impoundment for people arrested for drunken driving would also put a strain on the state's resources, Venhuizen said.

"It creates an entirely separate process before an administrative law judge, parallel to the legal proceedings," he said. "It becomes very complex and expensive."

Venhuizen also said a proposed excise tax on alcohol -- which Spindler has said could be used to fund many of the proposed reforms -- is unlikely, as the governor has opposed any new taxes since taking office.

Having declined to act on many of Spindler's proposals, Venhuizen said it's still valuable to discuss ways to improve the state's DUI laws, especially with those people who have lost loved ones as a result of drunken driving.

"In every one of these cases, it's important to take a step back and ask how we can be the most effective in controlling this problem," Venhuizen said.

The man accused of driving drunk and killing Spindler's daughter and her co-worker is 29-year-old Ronald Fischer, of Lake Andes. He is scheduled to stand trial in April for multiple charges, including two counts of first-degree manslaughter, a felony punishable by up to life in prison.

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