ATLANTA - The Senate approved legislation Friday cracking down on Georgia motorists who drive repeatedly without a license.
Under the bill, which passed 40-8, a driver caught without a license for the third time within five years would be charged with a felony, subject to a prison term of up to five years. A motorist's first two offenses still would be treated as misdemeanors.
The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. John Wiles, R-Marietta, pitched it to his Senate colleagues as a public safety measure aimed at motorists reckless enough in their habits to drive habitually without a license.
"If you're in prison, you're not out on the roads endangering our children and family members,'' he said.
Since the bill was pre-filed last month, its supporters also have portrayed it as part of an ongoing effort by the Legislature aimed at illegal immigrants. In Georgia, many motorists arrested for not having a driver's license are in this country illegally.
One of the bill's provisions would require authorities arresting a driver for not having a license to make a "reasonable effort'' to determine the suspect's nationality.
Wiles drafted an amendment to the bill on the Senate floor after Sen. Michael Meyer von Bremen, D-Albany, objected that it could send to jail people who move from out of state and aren't aware that the law requires them to get a Georgia driver's license within 30 days of establishing residence.
"I'm all in favor of getting people without licenses off the roads,'' he said. "But we need to be careful when we pass laws not to end up putting people in jail for a single mistake.''
Wiles' amendment, which passed unanimously, would give judges discretion to suspend the jail sentence of a defendant who had established residence in Georgia within 60 days of the offense and had a valid out of state driver's license.
Also on Friday, senators voted unanimously to outlaw "phishing'' in Georgia, the transmittal of fraudulent e-mails by con artists seeking to dupe victims into revealing personal information such as credit card numbers.
"This is a problem that is growing across the country,'' said Sen. Cecil Staton, R-Macon, the bill's sponsor. "They're getting more and more sophisticated.''
The measure would mete out stiff penalties to scam artists caught engaging in phishing, including up to 20 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000.
Both Senate bills passed on Friday now go to the House.