State House needs to follow suit on toughening DUI laws

Jul 30, 2015

In January, the Legislature must make a fourth DUI a felony.

By Mike Padden

Special to The Times

AFTER 176 days of work, state lawmakers passed a historic budget that lowers tuition for the first time, puts record amounts of funding into basic education and makes significant investments in mental health — all with no new taxes. But in a legislative year of big achievements, one glaring failure by House Democrats stands out.

Despite the state Senate unanimously approving a bill three times this year to get tough on repeat driving-under-the-influence offenders, the state House failed to hold a single floor vote on this important measure to help take these dangerous individuals off our roads.

Earlier this month, we got yet another example of why we must address this problem. On July 2, a 34-year-old Bothell woman was impaired and driving with a suspended license when she seriously injured a 61-year-old Lynnwood woman in a head-on crash.

According to reports, the suspect has two previous DUIs and was driving with a suspended license. A trooper on the scene wrote that the woman’s breath smelled of “intoxicants,” and a later search of her purse revealed a marijuana pipe with burned residue.

Unfortunately, this story is not uncommon.

It was just a month ago that a driver flipped his car on the West Seattle Bridge. According to police, the man said he had a drink earlier in the day and had smoked marijuana beforehand.

This was the man’s fifth DUI arrest. Police said he reeked of alcohol. A breathalyzer reading from his previous arrest was three times the legal limit. At the time, prosecutors observed he “either cannot or will not refrain from driving impaired and is a grave danger to the community.”

We ought to be glad the 32-year-old man did not injure his 1-year-old daughter who was with him at the time of the rollover accident. But we ought to wonder at a system that makes it extremely difficult to send repeat offenders to prison.

Most people see a DUI arrest as a wake-up call, a turning point that forces them to change their behavior. For others, alcohol is far more powerful than the law. They’ll get hammered and slide right back behind the wheel. For repeat offenders, the punishment that fits the crime is one that removes them from the driver’s seat altogether and puts them behind bars at a state penitentiary.

That is why I teamed up with state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, to introduce SSSB 5105, which would make a fourth DUI conviction in 10 years a felony and allow our courts to sentence the repeat offender to state prison instead of a shorter stay in county jail.

Forty-five states have felony DUI laws — of those, Washington is the only state requiring five convictions within a 10-year period.

During our hearings on SSSB 5105, we heard directly from the families of DUI victims. We heard the story of Dennis and Judy Schulte. The couple died on a Seattle street, struck by a pickup truck that also critically injured their daughter-in-law Karina and her infant son. And we heard the story of Morgan Williams, who died from injuries sustained when a wrong-way driver struck her car on Highway 520 in Seattle. In both cases, the drivers are accused of driving while intoxicated, and for both it was a repeat charge.

The heart-wrenching and compelling stories from victims’ loved ones who testified in support of the bill should have moved all of us to action. That was the case in the Senate, where not a single member voted against this bill during its three votes on the Senate floor.

But on this issue, the leadership of the House failed the people of this state by not allowing their members to have a single floor vote on this potentially lifesaving measure.

Why? Some have suggested that the bill did not receive a vote in the House, because Democratic leadership wanted the Senate to first pass a measure that would allow property-crime offenders out of jail early in exchange for supervision and then reduce that supervision when there is “positive-time” good behavior.

If true, it essentially boils down to a demand that the Senate go soft on property-crime offenders before the House would be willing to get tough on dangerous repeat DUI offenders. That’s an outrage.

SSSB 5105 has the full support of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, as well as backing from prosecutors, law enforcement and — most important — victims’ families.

Those who rack up a fourth DUI conviction in just 10 years clearly pose a serious danger to everyone else on the road. For many victims, SSSB 5105 doesn’t go far enough in addressing this danger. I agree.

While making a fourth DUI a felony may not be the final step in strengthening our DUI laws, it is a good first step, and one the Legislature should take as soon as lawmakers return in January.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee.