Two lawmakers push to toughen Washington DUI laws

Feb 4, 2019, 5:15 AM
A state trooper monitors freeway drivers. (MyNorthwest file photo)
(MyNorthwest file photo)

From the five-time drunk driver in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood who plowed into four family members in 2013 — killing two — to the repeat drunk driver who killed a 28-year-old woman last year after speeding down I-5 the wrong way for six miles near Marysville — and all of the others who have come before and since, Democratic Senator David Frockt says it is clear we have a problem here in Washington state.

“You have repetitive drunk drivers and something tragic happens and it turns out that this person has had multiple – and sometimes as many as 6, or 8, or 10 – drunk driving arrests, but they don’t even have a felony on them because they didn’t all occur within the last 10 years,” Frockt said.

That was the case with Aaron Gentry, the repeat drunk driver who was sentenced to more than 20 years behind bars last week after pleading guilty to vehicular homicide. The wrong-way crash on I-5 in Marysville last summer killed 28-year-old Miriam Robinson.

Gentry’s blood alcohol was nearly three times the legal limit in that crash. It was his seventh conviction related to driving drunk, including four DUIs. Only two of those were in the past 10 years so they weren’t felonies. Each felony DUI carries a minimum 13-month prison term, rather than just a jail sentence.

In court last week, Robinson’s father stressed Gentry’s drunk driving history to the judge.

“He chose to break the promises he made dozens and dozens of times before many judges, many courts, many district attorneys, lawyers, drug counselors – and my daughter is dead because of his persistent lies,” Ken Robinson told the judge as he fought through tears to urge the maximum possible sentence.

Gentry said in court that he was heartbroken and apologized to Robinson’s family. But Ken Robinson told KIRO-7 that his apology was meaningless.

“I think he feels sorry, I do. It doesn’t mean anything to me … my daughter’s gone,” Robinson said.

It’s tragedies like this that Senator Frockt hopes his bill can help stop, by extending what’s commonly referred to as the look-back period for repeat DUI offenses. Currently, a fourth DUI is a felony if the driver was convicted of the first three in the previous 10 years, which is known as the look-back period.

“It’s sort of an artificial timeline,” Frockt said. It’s not enough of a deterrent.

“We should try to ensure that people understand that the more you drive drunk, the more likely you are to get caught, and you’re going to get a felony,” Frockt added.

His bill would extend the look-back period, allowing a drunk driver to be charged with a felony if they’ve had three DUIs in the past 20 years, rather than the current 10 years.

A separate bill, from Republican Senator Mike Padden, goes even further, extending the look back period to 25 years.

“There have been cases where somebody might have two offenses within the 10-year period and then might not have any for a while, and then have another a few years later,” Padden explained.

“We would be able to look back over the 25, rather than just the 10 years and get more of the habitual offenders – the ones that are most likely to have a vehicular homicide or vehicular assault – and get them off the roads,” Padden added.

Padden points out many states have no look-back period, so all prior DUIs accrue over a lifetime leading to felonies, regardless of  how many years ago previous offenses occurred.

The fact that it takes three prior DUIs to get to a felony in the first place is an issue for both senators, though it is better than Washington’s previous law, which was the most lax in the country – allowing four prior DUIs in a 10-year period before a person would finally be charged with a felony on the fifth.

Getting the law changed to make a fourth DUI a felony was a struggle and took years to get passed. In fact, the bill was considered dead again in 2017 until a drunk driver was busted for an 11th DUI in Renton.  Intense media scrutiny and public pressure helped push lawmakers into a last-minute deal to get it passed.

Washington state has the most lax felony DUI law in the country, among the 46 states that have felony laws against drinking and driving. So why is it so difficult to toughen these DUI laws? One reason is that many believe the priority should be getting offenders help rather than locking them up.

“We’ve rightly had a conversation in the country and here in Washington about what should our criminal justice policy be and how should we be handling things like non-violent drug offenses and other things, and that’s all completely legitimate,” Frockt said.

But when it comes to driving drunk or high, he says the stakes are simply too high.

“It’s an area where the equities always, I think, have to be in favor of the individuals who are on the road who are the victims because the stakes are so high. It’s not a non-violent offense and death is the very likely result,” Frockt added.

He also pointed out that data shows, in many cases, people who drive drunk do so dozens of times for each of the instances where they actually get caught.

Senator Padden agrees there is a conversation to be had in some cases about getting people help, but at a certain point, protecting the public has to trump restorative justice.

“Each of these times people talk about treatment and that’s great, some people really do get the treatment – they do turn their lives around and don’t drive impaired,” Padden said.

It’s the ones who don’t that these bills are targeting.

“They get an opportunity after each DUI to get the treatment and they’re ordered not to drink and drive, and they violate that so it’s not as if the repeat offenders have not had chances,” Padden said.

But that’s not enough for some lawmakers, Padden says.

“There are a number of legislators that don’t believe we should hold people accountable by confining them,” Padden said. “There’s also a group that don’t believe that we should increase any penalties on any laws that might add even one more bed to the state prison system.”

Bringing us to the other major road block: cost.

“It’s the cost of further incarceration,” Frockt said.

“Unfortunately, the great reality [is] when it drives up costs in the system, the question is going to be can they be offset in other ways with other things we’re trying to do this year that have to be done, like behavioral health,” Frockt explained.

But for both senators, the cost of a life supersedes those concerns.

“We’ve had just way, way too many tragedies and they’re not really accidents because people make a decision to drive impaired … they’re preventable crimes,” Padden said.

Frockt agreed.

“When it’s something that’s imminently preventable, I don’t really consider this a random event in the sense that there is so much intentionality in the decisions that people take on when they drive drunk and do it repeatedly,” Frockt said.

“What if it was your family? What if it was your kid that this happened to?” Frockt added.

Frockt and Padden would like to pass much stricter penalties and laws surrounding DUIs in Washington state, including a no-look-back period at all and, at the very least, making the third DUI a felony. But for now, extending the look-back period is what they think they can get done this year – and after talking to prosecutors – the effort that will make the biggest difference when it comes to public safety.

Both senators have worked together on these proposals and are co-sponsoring each other’s legislation. Both bills will be heard in the Senate Law and Justice Committee Monday morning.

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Two lawmakers push to toughen Washington DUI laws