In response to a recent string of fatal crashes caused by DUI drivers, the state Legislature has set its sights on strengthening DUI penalties in Washington. While tragedies like this are senseless and gut wrenching, it is important to remember that these results are not typical. An overhaul of DUI law must actively target the underlying cause of recidivism (alcoholism), while acknowledging that for many, a DUI is an isolated incident; a stupid mistake in an otherwise law-abiding life.
DUI penalties are already significant. Mandatory minimum penalties start at 24 consecutive hours in jail (convertible to 15 days of electronic home monitoring); $941 fine/court assessment; a 90-day license suspension; court-ordered alcohol evaluation, treatment, and victim impact panel; a one-year ignition interlock device (IID) requirement; five years of probation; and mandatory 12- hour impoundment of the vehicle immediately following arrest. The mandatory minimum penalties get stiffer with subsequent convictions within seven years or higher BAC levels. A person convicted of DUI may never vacate that conviction. It remains on their criminal history forever, even after the 10-year look-back period for sentencing and felony enhancements ends. This ensures a lifetime of shame and stigma even for those who never reoffend, and puts DUI offenders into the same category as violent felons and sex offenders.
The Legislature has amended RCW 46.61.5055, the statute prescribing DUI penalties, 11 times in the past 10 years; three times in 2012 alone and twice in 2011. DUI is not a subject area ignored by lawmakers where the crime’s impact on society has significantly outpaced stiffer sentencing. Now legislatures are looking at different alternatives to once again, “get really aggressive about drunk driving.”
Current Proposals to Change DUI Laws
Proposals include making the third DUI a felony (currently, the fifth DUI in 10 years is a felony); requiring impounded vehicles be outfitted with IIDs before releasing the vehicle; random sobriety checkpoints; increasing jail sentences for repeat offenders; a 10- year prohibition on the consumption or purchase of alcohol following the third DUI conviction; faster filing of charges; and mandatory jail booking following arrest.
Requiring installation of IID devices on impounded vehicles is likely to run into various constitutional challenges, and may cause more harm than good especially where the DUI offender has borrowed the vehicle from a family member or friend. The Washington Supreme Court has already ruled random sobriety checkpoints unconstitutional in City of Seattle v. Mesiani. Mandatory jail booking following arrest will cause a massive need for more jail space and money to pay for it.
Most recently, the Legislature has largely overcome its initial emotional reaction to the recent deaths, and is now letting cooler heads prevail. The feasibility of the proposed changes is being hotly disputed, even by law enforcement and prosecutors. Stiffening DUI penalties to deter repeat offenders or even first-time offenders is a worthwhile goal for the Legislature and for society. Even one life lost is one too many. However, extra care must be taken by our lawmakers to craft laws and policies that strikes at the root of the problem while keeping in mind that everyone is entitled to one mistake.
Your take? What do you think of the proposed changes to DUI law? Will it do anything to deter first time or repeat offenders?