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King County prosecutor says Washington not serious about drunk driving crimes

Is six years enough prison time for taking a life when you're drunk behind the wheel? A 25-year-old Tacoma man accused of killing a woman in a head-on collision on SR520 while driving under the influence may serve a sentence some say is too short.

"The part of this story that just has me and everybody else seeing red is the possible sentence here," said KIRO Radio's Dori Monson. "This is a guy who ended a life and in our state, you can do more time for playing video poker on your computer in your basement than you can get for driving drunk and killing. That makes no sense to me, whatsoever."

In a conversation with Monson, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg agreed the penalty is not enough, but said it actually used to be worse.

"We went down to the legislature a year ago and they actually increased the sentence from where it was. It was 31 to 41 months, so it was a 3-year sentence for the taking of life, of which you would serve two-thirds. You get a third off for good time in this state. So you could actually do a 2-year sentence after taking an innocent life," said Satterberg.

"We increased it to the range of first-degree manslaughter, another non-intentional homicide, so that's where the six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years comes, of which you will do two-thirds."

King County prosecutors charged Michael Anthony Robertson on Friday with vehicular homicide in Thursday's death of 58-year-old Morgan Williams.

Prosecutors say state troopers reported Robertson showed several signs of alcohol impairment and they found an open, nearly empty bottle of whiskey on his front seat.

Robertson was also previously arrested for a DUI hit and run collision on Dec. 15, 2012. The trial for that case was to begin April 23, said Satterberg.

"Of course, the court ordered the traditional orders which are: don't drink and drive. Well the problem [...] so much of this is on the honor system, and there's not a lot of honor among people who can't control their intake of alcohol," said Satterberg.

If convicted of the December hit and run in Tacoma, Robertson could face an additional two-years when sentenced for the crime in King County, said Satterberg.

Still unsatisfied, Monson pressed Satterberg on why they can't just go for a more serious charge, if the sentence can't be longer.

"I don't understand the difference between somebody getting drunk, picking up a gun, firing it into a crowd and killing somebody, in which case they would get murder, versus getting drunk, picking up their keys, and firing a two-ton car into a crowd and killing somebody," Dori said. "I really cannot understand the distinction. Why can't we go after an all out murder charge here?"

Satterberg explained a murder charge requires proof of intent.

"Intent to kill is required, and while you can make that argument, I suppose. What driving drunk is, is extreme recklessness. It means you know about a risk and you disregard that risk anyway, regardless of what happens, you don't care," said Satterberg.

"That's extreme recklessness, and that's what a manslaughter charge is. So when we convinced the legislature last session to increase the sentences that's where everybody agrees that made some sense. It's not an intentional murder charge."

Satterberg says the sentence increase approved last year is an improvement, but not enough.

"We're not serious about this crime yet," said Satterberg. "We have a cultural tolerance for drunk driving in this state that continues."

To really crack down, Satterberg thinks the state should make buying alcohol a privilege that can be taken away. He suggests those convicted of a drunk driving crime or a crime involving alcohol be issued a different type of ID card.

"Have a state ID card that's bright red and looks like the 16-year-old kind kids get," said Satterberg. "The person selling it to you has to card you and if they fail to do it, they face civil or criminal liability."

While there might be ways around that, like having a person with a valid ID card buy the alcohol, he said he doesn't know many people who would buy booze for someone like this.

"I think there would be public support if you restricted the people who've already proven that their inability to hold their alcohol, or their alcoholism is killing innocent people. I think it'd be harder to find somebody who'd go buy a bottle for someone like that," said Satterberg.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Jamie Skorheim, MyNorthwest.com Editor
Whether it's floating on Green Lake, eating shrimp tacos at Agua Verde, or taking weekend drives out to the Cascades, she loves to enjoy the Pacific Northwest lifestyle as much as humanly possible.
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