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Nearly-dead DUI bill moves to the governor’s desk

State Senator Mike Padden continues his fight to toughen Washington state's DUI law. (AP)

Washington state’s relatively weak felony DUI laws are about to get tougher.

A near-dead bill that would make a fourth DUI a felony in our state is now headed to the governor’s desk after a last minute move in the Legislature.

Our state has the weakest law in the country of the 46 states with felony DUI laws — it takes 5 DUIs before making it a felony. This bill makes a fourth DUI in 10 years a felony, and mandates 13 to 17 months in prison, rather than shorter sentences in a county jail.

Original story

Despite years of passing with wide support in the Senate and some House committees, a bill to toughen our state’s felony DUI law is poised to die in the House — again.

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A man in Renton was recently arrested for his 11th DUI. Two of those were felonies in Washington state. Another in Nevada was also a felony. How does a driver who racks up that many DUIs not live behind bars, let alone get behind the wheel?

Part of the problem is our state’s felony DUI law. It takes five DUIs in Washington state before it’s considered a felony. That’s the most lax in the country among the 46 states that have felony DUI laws.

State Senator Mike Padden says it’s time for our state to catch up.

“Because we know that the people most likely to have vehicular homicides are repeat offenders,” he said. “If some of those repeat offenders are off the roads we are going to reduce the number of vehicular homicides.”

Padden began trying to get this done since 2013. His bill has cleared the Senate seven times.

Padden’s legislation would make a fourth DUI a felony and increase jail time for a four-time offender, sentencing them to up to 17 months in jail. It has received widespread support from City of Seattle, law enforcement, and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers.

After clearing the Senate unanimously, Padden thought it was a done deal this year. But now it’s near death after not getting a vote in the House before a Wednesday deadline last week and with under a week to go before the end of the regular session.

I asked Padden if legislation on both sides might be being held up as sort of a bargaining chip.

“That always happens,” he said. “Last year, it was in the budget for the House and Senate, and the Senate passed it. We were given the impression it would come up on the last day and it did not.”

One of the main concerns for opponents of Padden’s bill is the cost of putting more people behind bars. However, Padden says the total cost to society for a victim’s death related to a DUI is about $10 million. More people die from DUI than gun violence, he pointed out.

Some in the House want to see more in the way for treatment for felony DUI offenders, rather than just locking them up. Padden has been working on that in the form of a companion bill from Democratic Rep. Tina Orwall. The money would be spent on outreach, education, and treatment for second and third time DUI offenders.

“I just don’t know where the House is,” Padden said of his bill. “I heard some discussion that Rep. Timm Ormsby didn’t have it in his budget, but it is in the Senate budget…”

Padden and many others lawmakers agree a final budget will end up getting worked out in a special session. He says there’s a slight chance this — and other bills that failed to get votes last week — could get done in the regular session. But with that wrapping up Sunday it’s not looking good.

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