Washington has some of the most lax laws when it comes to DUI offenses, get-tough proponents say. It isn’t until the fifth charge in a 10-year period that a repeat offender can face a felony conviction.
OLYMPIA — With the legislative session scheduled to end Thursday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers Monday pushed for the passage of three bills that would strengthen DUI penalties.
In the morning news conference, Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland; Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley; and Rep. Brad Klippert, R-Kennewick, made the case for proposals they have sponsored.
Under Senate bill 5105, sponsored by Padden, drunken drivers could face prison time for their fourth convictions.
Under current law, Washington motorists can be charged with a felony only after four previous DUI convictions in 10 years. Oregon and California require three DUI convictions.
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“We’ve made some progress, but the tragedies continue,” Goodman said. “We want to end them.”
The Senate has passed SB 5105 unanimously four times, including this year, but it has consistently stalled in the House. Goodman says costs and already-overcrowded prisons are to blame.
The proposal would cost $9 million over the next five years due to case shuffling and prosecution expenses. It’s estimated that cases would increase by 251 under the bill.
Padden said he doesn’t consider the money paramount. “I think of the cost to these victims,” he said.
The lawmakers said deaths and injuries caused by drunken drivers are avoidable.
“It’s a tragedy that takes place in people’s lives in an instant when a person decides to get behind the wheel,” Klippert said. “There’s a legal and moral obligation, not only to these victims, but to society at large.”
A different DUI bill in the House, sponsored by Klippert, would strengthen penalties for felony DUI charges. It would allow prosecutors to charge a Class B felony, which would carry a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $20,000 fine, up from the current Class C felony carrying up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
This change is projected to cost the Department of Corrections $161,064 in added trial expenses over five years.
Amy Freedheim, a veteran prosecutor of felony traffic crimes for King County, said the legislation is important. All sentencing in Washington state is done using a point system that takes into account variables such as a crime’s seriousness and the defendant’s criminal history.
But, Freedheim explained, some repeat DUI offenders have racked up so many points that they receive a maximum sentence, which makes them ineligible to be supervised upon release. Increasing the maximum penalties would solve that problem.
“These people need to be supervised,” Freedheim said.
A third DUI bill, this one sponsored by Goodman, would make multiple tweaks to existing laws.
Among them, it seeks to speed up the license-suspension process from the current 60 days to 30 days. The bill also adds a 24/7 Sobriety Program, allowing judges to require regular alcohol testing for repeat offenders. It would come with a one-time cost of $387,000.
Goodman’s bill passed the House overwhelmingly but awaits a vote in the Senate.
Bills not already passed will die if they don’t get a vote by the end of the legislative session.
Karina Ulriksen-Schulte who, along with her newborn son, was critically injured by a drunken driver while crossing a street in Wedgwood three years ago, attended Monday’s news conference. Her in-laws were killed in the accident.
Her husband, Dan Schulte, said the man behind the wheel was a repeat offender, had benefited from systemic loopholes and was inefficiently monitored by police. His son and wife are now permanently disabled.
Joan Davis is a member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an advocacy group started by family members of those killed by drunken drivers.
She lost her daughter, Jessica, in 2008 to a repeat DUI offender. A now-16-year-old niece of her daughter spoke on the issue but began crying as she related the experience of losing someone so close.
“It really makes me wonder why these laws haven’t been passed,” she choked out. “I really don’t want other families to go through what my family has gone through.”