Family of teenager killed in drunken-driving crash want DUI penalties stiffened

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(Host) Several hundred people traveled to the Statehouse today and asked lawmakers to crack down on repeat drunk drivers.

The group was motivated by the death of a Swanton teenager last November. The student was killed by a car that was traveling the wrong way on Interstate 89.

The driver was a repeat DUI offender, and he’s been charged with being drunk in this case.

VPR’s Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) The family of 17-year-old Nick Fournier wants to turn his tragic death into a positive change of Vermont’s drunk driving laws.

Every square foot of space in the Cedar Creek ceremonial room at the Statehouse was packed with Nick’s family and friends. The group created a vast sea of blue shirts – shirts that had Nick’s name in bold letters across the front.

Swanton Rep. Kathy LaVoie told the gathering that she hopes lawmakers will toughen the state’s DUI laws for repeat offenders.

In the long term, the goal is to impose a mandatory minimum sentence for anyone convicted of DUI with death resulting. The short-term goal includes a plan to take cars away from drunk drivers and to impose additional penalties:

(LaVoie) "I know that Nick is smiling down from heaven wishing he could run the room giving out hugs and flashing his smile. Your presence today, no matter how short it was, has made a difference, just as Nick’s life made a difference despite his short time with us. Our success in strengthening DUI laws will be measured by some through our ability to persevere and our willingness to compromise. Persevere we must, compromise we must not."

(Kinzel) House Judiciary chairman Bill Lippert promised to take a serious look at this issue in the weeks ahead.

(Lippert) "The time is here again to make additional changes. Alcohol remains the number one drug of abuse in the state of Vermont. I repeat that alcohol remains the number one drug of abuse in the state of Vermont. We must recognize the terrible, terrible losses that are taken from the abuse of alcohol and particularly when you get behind the wheel. I will continue my efforts. Thank you for coming together. We will make a big change."

(Kinzel) Cathy Fournier is Nick’s mother. Following the ceremony, she said her goal is to get drunk drivers off the road.

(Fournier) "We really want to make a change for other families. It is very difficult every day for us to go through what we go through. But if we can make a change in the laws to save another family, to save another life, and protect another family from going through the tragedy that we have, that’s our main goal."

(Kinzel) And Fournier says drunk drivers need to face tougher penalties for their actions.

(Fournier) "It seems that right now the laws, I guess if you’re the offender, they seem very extreme. But if you’re on the other side of it, the victim, they don’t seem very extreme at all. And I think if someone really thought there’s a consequence for their actions greater than it is right now, that they may think twice about getting behind the wheel of a car."

(Kinzel) Because the Legislature has passed its crossover deadline for new bills, the House Judiciary Committee is considering adding tougher DUI penalties to a different bill that’s already passed the Senate and is being reviewed in the committee.

For VPR News, I’m Bob Kinzel in Montpelier

AP Photo/Alden Pellett

Rene Fournier, right, and Mary Fournier, left, hug Ashley Ledoux, 19, second from right, and Brooke Choiniere, 19, at the Statehouse.

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