Arizona voters may get the last word on whether suspected drunken drivers are entitled to a jury trial.
Two attorneys on Thursday filed the paperwork to begin a referendum drive to overturn a change in state law that eliminated a statutory right for people charged with simple drunken driving — a blood-alcohol content of more than 0.8 — and who have not been convicted before can have their guilt or innocence determined by a jury. The change will instead leave that option up to the judge assigned to the case.
The backers, both attorneys who defend clients in drunken-driving cases, need 86,405 valid signatures by July 19 to put the issue on the 2012 ballot.
Just getting the signatures itself would be a partial victory: Once foes of any new law file sufficient signatures, that change in the law is put on hold until the election.
The attorneys, Stephen Barnard of Tucson and Clifford Girard of Phoenix, are not targeting other provisions in the far-reaching legislation dealing with those charged with drunken driving.
One of those would reduce the amount of time that those convicted have to keep an ignition interlock on any car or truck they drive, a device that prevents the vehicle from starting if a breath sample shows intoxication.
Another eliminates the requirement for anyone convicted of simple drunken driving to serve at least 24 consecutive hours in jail. Instead, the law now reads “one day,’’ which could mean simply being locked up overnight.
Sen. Linda Gray, R-Glendale, denied claims by referendum sponsors that the provision is the first step in a broader move to curtail the right to a trial by jury in misdemeanor cases to save money for the state.
But Gray said there is a cost to jury trials — and not only to the state. And that, she said, may be why attorneys like them.
“Maybe it cuts into them being able to make money off of their clients,’’ Gray said. She said it takes time just to select a jury, with attorneys going through the process of questioning each person about their background, experience and any potential bias.
“You get to bill all those hours,’’ she said.
Nothing in the law alters the right to a jury trial for those who are repeat offenders, or those charged with “extreme’’ DUI, describing those with a blood-alcohol content of at least 0.15.
Jury trials also would continue to be guaranteed for those charged with “aggravated’’ DUI. That charge covers those driving drunk while a license is suspended, someone who is supposed to have an ignition interlock, or if there is someone younger than 15 in the vehicle.