A bill in the Legislature would let repeat defendants swear they won’t drive, instead of getting an interlock, if they submit to alcohol-use monitoring.
Washington state legislators are looking at a bill that gives repeat drunken-driving defendants an option to swear they won’t drive, instead of getting an ignition-interlock device installed while awaiting trial.
This flexibility is supposed to help courts handle a case in which somebody charged with driving under the influence (DUI) tells the judge he doesn’t have a car or will find other transportation.
State Rep. Roger Goodman, the bill’s sponsor, says obtaining a sworn statement can be an effective deterrent. Breaking that promise can lead to arrest.
But an attorney for the Schulte family of Seattle, victims of a drunken-driving incident in 2013, says a written promise isn’t enough to protect the public.
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“I do not think that will solve the problem. A sworn statement does not shut a drunk driver’s car down,” lawyer Stephen Bulzomi said. “An interlock does.”
Drunken-driving policy is part of the special session in Olympia that began Wednesday. It’s been overshadowed by lawmakers’ struggle to agree on a two-year operating budget, broader tax policy, an education-funding court order and a proposed $15 billion transportation plan.
House Bill 1276 includes many provisions to deal with impaired driving. For instance, an open-container clause would ban marijuana within reach of drivers and passengers. Also, sponsors want more defendants to wear a 24/7 electronic device that detects alcohol. And the bill would require an interlock notation to be attached to a repeat defendant’s driver’s license and record, so police could readily learn if someone is violating an interlock requirement — or the sworn statement. A typical interlock device forces a driver to breathe into a tube before a vehicle’s ignition will start.
The bill is intended to require alcohol monitoring if someone swears not to drive.
But an early version seemed to put those awaiting trial on the honor system.
“The State Patrol and MADD literally cornered me,” said Goodman, D-Kirkland, chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, so an amendment on the House floor was added, for the alcohol tests. “It’s not loose.”
Seattle Municipal Court already uses a “declaration of nondriving,” and the change in state law would improve law enforcement’s ability to enforce those, said John Schochet, deputy chief of staff for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.
One clause would add an “interlock” notation onto the defendant’s driving record, Schochet said — so a police officer would readily know in a traffic stop if somebody violated the nondriving promise. That notation would also be helpful if a repeat offender got an interlock, but then got behind the wheel of a nonequipped car.
“If they’re violating it, they’re much more likely to get caught, which is huge,” he said.
Because the city of Seattle is relatively transit-rich and walkable, and interlocks cost hundreds of dollars, it’s common for as many as half the repeat defendants to sign the form and give up their wheels, Schochet said. Seattle files about 1,100 DUI cases a year, of which 40 percent are repeat suspects, he said.
He emphasized that city prosecutors usually ask for more conditions for repeat offenders, such as bail, an alcohol ban or monitoring devices, although Seattle doesn’t have the 24/7 tracking available.
Lawmakers acknowledge the bill needs work — it contains confusing placements of the words “and” and “or” regarding what’s required and what’s optional for defendants.
“We will be looking very hard at it, because the last thing I want is a loophole,” said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and a former DUI-court judge.
The special session also includes Padden’s Senate Bill 5105, to make DUI a felony on the fourth offense within a 10-year period, instead of the fifth offense. The presumptive sentencing range is 13 months to 17 months in prison.
Washington state imposed pretrial interlocks in 2013, after Mark Mullan drove drunk through a crosswalk and killed grandparents Kenneth and Judith Schulte on Seattle’s Northeast 75th Street; and a wrong-way driver on Highway 520, Michael A. Robertson, killed Morgan Williams, of Seattle. Repeat defendants are required to get an interlock within five days of entering a plea.
Dan Schulte, whose parents were killed, said last week:
“He [Mullan] was not supposed to drive. He didn’t have a valid license at that time, it was revoked. He was ordered to get an interlock device at that time, which he didn’t have in that truck. He had offenses within the few months before he hit my family. He was clearly lying and kept doing it. He wasn’t being watched closely.”
The crash also caused brain injuries to Schulte’s wife, Karina Ulriksen-Schulte, and infant son, Elias. A judge sentenced Mullan, 51, to 18 years in prison, plus four months for violating an interlock requirement.
Just how extensive the alcohol monitoring might be, under the bill, is unclear.
Goodman said he thought a defendant might have to be tested by law enforcement twice a day, but subsequently said “each of the sheriff’s offices has their own protocol for alcohol monitoring.”
Schulte said alcohol check-ins would help, but “there’s still all this time when they’re not being supervised.”
Another issue still being discussed, lawmakers say, is whether and how law enforcement can compel DUI suspects to give blood samples. The proposal raises questions about the Fourth Amendment, which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures, said Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island.
Supervision of pretrial conditions, especially dealing with people who may have addictions, can be difficult.
Of the defendants ordered to install interlocks, 70 percent comply, Goodman said.
“This provision is not being enforced very well by the courts, and we think that’s a problem,” said Larry Shannon, government-affairs director for the Washington State Association for Justice, a personal-injury attorneys’ group. He said sworn statements are “a good tool, but certainly it should not be done alone.”
Lawmakers have good intent, he said, and with some tightening, the bill has the potential to improve road safety.