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Lawmakers weigh ban on police officials owning interlock companies, water down DWI bill – The Advocate

Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre speaks as law enforcement leaders and officials gather to express support of Governor John Bel Edwards’ veto of the proposed constitutional carry bill, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La.
Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre speaks as law enforcement leaders and officials gather to express support of Governor John Bel Edwards’ veto of the proposed constitutional carry bill, Thursday, July 8, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La.
After toying with the idea of banning law enforcement officers like Lafourche Parish Sheriff Craig Webre from owning ignition interlock companies, a House panel on Wednesday changed course and instead advanced a bill aimed at expanding the use of the devices, which are designed to ensure that people arrested for drunk driving can’t reoffend.
The House Criminal Justice Committee, which had parked HB 769 over concerns – how far the bill goes in expanding ignition interlock requirements, and questions over Webre’s business arrangement – approved the bill after watering it down. Ignition interlock devices require drivers to blow into a breathalyzer to start their car.
The changes haven’t been formally drafted yet, but the compromise reduces the proposed punishments for first-time DWI offenders, which had emerged as a sticking point, among other changes. After the amendments, the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, one of the bill’s main opponents, dropped its opposition.
Mary-Patricia Wray, who is lobbying for the bill on behalf of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and ignition interlock companies including Webre’s Smart Start, said the proposed changes “eliminate all the recommendations of the National Highway Safety Administration aimed at saving lives.” She said what remains is largely an affordability program that’s paid for by the interlock industry and helps poor people afford interlock devices.
While the amendments also named the bill after the three Nicholls State students killed by a drunk driver last year in Thibodaux, Wray said the changes also strip the bill of measures that would “prevent similar deaths” in the future.
State Rep. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, asked the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Mark Wright, if he would be open to adding language to the bill saying law enforcement couldn’t own interlock companies. She said doing so would make her feel “more comfortable we’re doing it for the victims” of DWI crashes.
Wright said he was open to such an amendment, but the committee ultimately decided against it after Rep. Bryan Fontenot, a Republican from Webre’s home parish, said he asked Marcelle to drop her proposed change.
Fontenot noted Webre had gotten a ruling from the Louisiana Board of Ethics clearing him to have the company. As part of that arrangement, Webre’s nephew and business partner Joshua Becnel has a legally distinct firm that operates out of the same office as the broader company and services only Lafourche residents and people arrested by Webre’s deputies. A three-judge panel, when hearing a case brought by the Ethics Board against Webre over a decade ago, decided that setup was enough of a firewall to keep Webre from violating state ethics laws. Among other things, ethics laws bar elected officials from owning businesses that do business with the agencies they run.
Fontenot said he was the first person at the scene of a “horrific” crash last year where a drunk driver killed three Nicholls State students. Tightening drunk driving laws to prevent such incidents is more important than addressing Webre’s business interests, he said.
“This is about public safety and not about Craig Webre,” Fontenot said.
In an interview last week, Webre, among the longest-serving top lawmen in the state, dared legislators who were concerned about his business interests to amend the bill to bar him from owning the company. Webre’s tax returns indicate his interlock company made profits of nearly $180,000 in 2019; Webre said he took less than $30,000 in income from the firm that year, leaving the majority of it on the company’s books.
“If (legislators) are of the opinion that people who hold elective office … should not be part of this in any way shape or form, that’s simple,” Webre said last week. “Just amend the bill and put that in there. I don’t have a problem divesting myself. Because I’m going to follow the law.”
Originally, the bill approved Wednesday would have lowered the blood-alcohol level that triggers tougher penalties; removed loopholes that allow offenders to avoid an interlock device on their first offense; and required people to keep interlocks in their car until they show compliance.
The proposed amendments keep the current blood alcohol level of 0.20 for enhanced penalties and remove longer license suspensions for first-time offenders, among other changes.
The bill still must clear the full House before moving to the Senate.
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