USA Today reports that Nevada is among 33 states that the federal government may attempt to withhold federal highway funds from in an effort to coerce the state into tougher laws against drunk driving. The national newspaper reports that the Federal Highway Administration, an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has informed the state that it is in not in compliance, and the agency is holding funds in reserve until it completes a review.
It’s unclear whether the tactic will work. The amount being held is only $7.3 million of the funds the state would use for highway construction, which is really just a drop in the bucket when it comes to state and federal spending. The state of Montana, for example, responded that the $8.8 million the feds were attempting to withhold wasn’t enough to warrant the state changing its laws. However, during these lean times, it’s difficult to predict what state government officials will do for a little bit of revenue.
The federal government cites its authority to engage in this tactic from the 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case South Dakota v. Dole. Congress had passed a law stating that the national drinking age was 21 years old. If the state did not enforce the law, the federal government would withhold 10 percent of federal transportation funds. South Dakota had a drinking age of 19, and disputed the law. The Court ruled that if the amount being withheld is insufficient to be coercive, the ability to create such laws is under Congress’s spending power.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which sets drunk driving policy, has held up Virginia as a recent model for DUI penalties. The state passed laws last year requiring all first-time DUI offenders to installed ignition interlock devices on their vehicles. This is tougher than Nevada law. If convicted for a first DUI offense in Las Vegas, you may be required to have an interlock device installed, but it’s up to the discretion of the court.
As a Las Vegas drunk driving lawyer, I do not believe that one-size-fits-all penalties are conducive to justice. Each case has nuances that warrant a different approach. Also, if you take away my ability to negotiation a sentence with prosecutors by handing down mandatory sentences, it takes away any incentive to not take every case to trial. There will be far fewer plea bargains if you take away prosecutors’ bargaining power.
Nevada should carefully consider whether it’s worth it to give away state autonomy over a relatively low amount of money.