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Time running out on bill to crack down on repeat DUI offenders

(AP)

Washington state used to have some of the most lax DUI laws in the nation when it comes to repeat offenders. While improvements have been made, repeat DUI offenders are still a big issue.

RELATED: Washington state lawmakers consider tightening DUI laws

Just recently, a man was arrested in Seattle for an eighth DUI. Over the summer, a driver with four DUI convictions and two other drunk driving related arrests killed a woman from Oregon. In that incident, the man got behind the wheel and barreled down I-5 near Marysville, driving the wrong way for 6 miles.

In recent years, offenders have been arrested for anywhere from their fourth to 11th DUI.

In 2017, the Legislature finally was able to pass a bill that made the fourth DUI in 10 years a felony, down from a fifth offense, which was among the lowest standards in the nation. A felony DUI generally comes with prison time.

But that still has not been enough to keep repeat drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel.

According to Amy Freedheim with the King County Prosecutor’s Office, part of the problem is that courts can only consider a driver’s previous DUI convictions from the past 10 years to get to that felony mark.

“DUI offenders are savvy, and so they’re delaying, delaying, delaying the conviction of their prior DUIs so they spread them out, so that their last one times out. That’s why extending the look-back would help us, because we have people who are just not making the felony DUI mark,” Freedheim told lawmakers at a recent Senate Ways and Means committee hearing on a proposal to extend the “look-back” to 15 years.

Republican Senator Mike Padden, who has long been leading the fight to crack down on repeat DUI offenders, introduced SB 5299, which originally would have extended the look-back to 25 years. It was pared down to 15 years in committee, in part because of cost concerns associated with putting more people in prison.

At that committee hearing, Padden told fellow lawmakers this was about keeping the most habitual offenders — those most likely to commit vehicular homicide or assault — off the roads.

“I always say what about the cost to our citizens, and the loss of life and the disruption, and as much as you don’t want to put a dollar figure on the value of an innocent human life, if this was a civil case and it went to trial and everything, it’s been estimated it would be $1 million a life,” Padden said.

James McMahan with the Washington Association Sheriffs and Police Chiefs said anything will help.

RELATED: Over 300 impaired drivers arrested in King County over holidays

“The folks that we’re talking about here have a long history of repeated drunk driving we can catch them at,” he told the committee. “There’s good data that shows for every drunk driver that we catch, they’ve had several instances that they’ve driven that we don’t catch them. These are perhaps the most dangerous hazards on our roads. We totally get that housing offenders in incarceration is incredibly expensive. That’s a challenge that you all have we get it, we understand it — whatever help you can provide for us to make the road safer, we certainly appreciate it.”

Supporters stressed this was aimed at a small percentage of offenders; 91 percent of nearly 700 DUI offenders have no prior DUI arrests. But they say drivers with prior DUIs are 67 percent more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those without priors.

Russell Brown with the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said extending the look-back to 15 years could also help get repeat offenders into treatment.

“This gives us an incredible amount of leverage to encourage that treatment. Prosecutors often use discretion, just because it is filed as a felony DUI does not necessarily mean they’re going to be convicted of that, but it gives us the leverage to encourage that. This would be a fantastic tool in that regard whether its 15, 20, or 25 years,” Brown said.

Freedheim says she’s hopeful this bill will pass this session and send a strong message to repeat DUI offenders, and help get them off the roads.

“I personally think they’re the most dangerous people to the community because they are out on all of our streets – [with] our children, our spouses, we drive on our roads – everybody is at risk. So, we need to take very seriously these repeat DUI offenders. They’re not just repeat DUI offenders — they are multiple repeat DUI offenders,” Freedheim stressed.

Padden says this bill has to be passed out of the Senate by 5 p.m. on Wednesday to stay alive and continue moving this session. At this point there “is still a chance” that will happen.

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