Legislators back measure creating a crime for flying a plane drunk, put sheriff amendment on ballot

By: - April 4, 2022 3:09 pm

Rep. John Carmichael said Kansas can and should prosecute and penalize pilots who fly under the influence. The measure makes any flying with a blood alcohol level above a 0.04 illegal. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas legislators sent Friday a wide variety of criminal justice and law enforcement bills to the governor for consideration and placed an amendment on the ballot regarding how sheriffs are chosen.

Among those approved initiatives was the creation of a new crime for operating an aircraft under the influence. Any pilot would be subject to a Breathalyzer test and if their blood alcohol concentration is above 0.04, they would be considered under the influence.

The first violation would be considered a misdemeanor with a minimum of 48 hours imprisonment and a $750 fine. A second offense requires 90 days to a year of imprisonment and more serious fines and probation.

A felony crime would be assessed if the pilot is flying on a revoked license.

“I’ll phrase this delicately,” said Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita. “If you think flying airplanes while drunk is a good idea, you might want to vote against this.”

The House approved the measure by a vote of 101 to 12. In the Senate, only Sen. Mar Steffen opposed the measure. 

Rep. Michael Murphy, a Sylvia Republican who owns and operates planes, was irritated with what he saw as an unprecedented action as the legislature does not usually wade into issues of pilot licensing. 

“The bottom line is there just might be a little irritation if I landed for fuel and somebody wanted to ramp check me and give me a Breathalyzer,” Murphy said.

Carmichael acknowledged Murphy may know planes better than he, but the law holds both the federal and state government have concurrent jurisdiction when it comes to operating an aircraft under the influence.

“People who do that foolish act can be prosecuted by either or both and that’s as it should be,” Carmichael said.

“I just wanted to make it clear, it is absolutely not OK to fly drunk, and this shouldn’t affect me because I don’t drink anyway,” Murphy said.

The House also unanimously approved a bill amending the severity level of child abuse, as well as one requiring the Kansas Supreme Court to adopt rules for the establishment of specialty courts across the state. Leading judges and legal experts have touted these alternatives to jail time as an effective way to help those with addiction, mental health disorders and more get back on track.

In Kansas, there are currently only about 21 specialty courts in 14 of the 31 judicial districts.

“The specialty court portion could be a really great step forward for criminal justice in the state and I think a stunning example of bipartisan cooperation,” said. Rep. Boog Highberger.

And across the rotunda, the Senate placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot this November that would require county sheriffs to be elected, not appointed. Currently, only Riley County appoints the sheriff.

The Senate voted 36 to 2 for the constitutional amendment pushed by Rep. Eric Smith R-Burlington, who said the proposal is based on rumblings that Johnson County may choose to allow the county commission to appoint the law enforcement position.

The House approved the amendment 97 to 24. Opponents of the measure said this was another infringement of local control.

“I just want you to consider the idea that when you have an elected sheriff out there that individual serves you and serves your constituents as an individual who has to uphold those values that they were elected on, and you can hold them accountable for that,” Smith said during a House debate earlier this year.

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Noah Taborda
Noah Taborda

Noah Taborda started his journalism career in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Missouri, covering local government and producing an episode of the podcast Show Me The State while earning his bachelor’s degree in radio broadcasting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Noah then made a short move to Kansas City, Missouri, to work at KCUR as an intern on the talk show Central Standard and then in the newsroom, reporting on daily news and feature stories.