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Renewed push to crack down on repeat DUI offenders in Olympia 

A City of Miami police officer speaks to a driver during a DUI checkpoint in 2013 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

It’s a rare, but familiar story in Washington. A driver under the influence causes a deadly pileup, or hits and kills a pedestrian or bicyclist. Then, it’s revealed that driver had a history of one, two, or even three previous DUIs.

That knowledge is typically followed with the inevitable question: How were they still able to be behind the wheel?

The answer is they find ways, as was the case a few summers ago when a repeat DUI offender who could not get by his vehicle’s ignition interlock device simply took a family member’s vehicle, only to enter I-5 going the wrong direction and smash into a car head on, killing a woman from Oregon.

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It is those rare, but tragic, situations that are driving Republican Senator Mike Padden’s push for SB 5054, which would extend what is known as the look back period to 15 years.

Washington has long had some of the most lax DUI laws in the nation. Before Padden finally was able to pass a bill in 2017 to make a fourth DUI in 10 years a felony, Washington was the only state to wait until the fifth DUI to trigger a felony DUI charge. Surrounding states trigger a felony at three or fewer prior DUIs.

Padden’s new bill would extend that look back period to 15 years, allowing prosecutors to go back 15 years, rather than 10 years, in determining whether a DUI is a felony.

“This week alone, I’m doing the plea paperwork for a man on his fourth felony DUI,” testified  Prosecutor Amy Freedheim at a recent hearing on the bill.

“Charges were filed on a man who committed a felony DUI one week after his third DUI sentencing, and I had to decline two cases where the third DUI had not yet been resolved due to COVID delays, and the look back of 10 years that cut off potential predicate crimes,” Freedheim told lawmakers.

Freedheim has prosecuted virtually every felony DUI in King County since the law was created in 2007.

“There is no one more dangerous to our community than a repeat DUI offender. No one,” she said. “Every time an impaired driver gets behind the wheel they can kill, every single time. A DUI offender is gravely dangerous to our residents, or visitors, or to themselves. And a multiple, repeat DUI offender is the most dangerous. They know they have an addiction, they know their driving is dangerous, and yet they continue to drive impaired.”

Freedheim also cited recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that found despite fewer drivers on the road during the pandemic, traffic deaths are up nationwide. In King County, traffic deaths rose more than 13% over 2019 numbers, according to Freedheim.

Other prosecutors also spoke in favor of the bill.

“We want to hold these people accountable. [At the] same time, we want to try to give them a helping hand,” Skagit County Prosecutor Rick Weyrich said.

“But if you’re on your fourth DWI, you have been subject to evaluation and treatment on three other occasions,” he added. “We have these individuals who continue to drive in our community, and all communities across the state, the inevitable result of them driving is going to be death or serious injury.”

On the flip side, one attorney argued that the current law allows defendants time to overcome their addiction disorders and not be judged by their past mistakes.

“The current law recognizes that defendants who have multiple DUIs can take efforts to become ready to rehabilitated, but can fall short later in life. Many repeat offenders suffered addiction disorders. These addiction disorders are a lifelong battle, it’s extremely difficult to overcome, and people are able to obtain time sobriety,” said attorney Kristen Lange with the Washington Defender Association and Washington Association of Criminal Defense lawyers.

“A misstep after 12 plus years of clean, sober, lawful living puts an unfair burden on persons suffering from an addiction. It reaffirms that they will always be defined by the mistakes that they made during the height of their addiction, rather than their years of sobriety,” she continued, pointing out that extending the look back to 15 years runs counter to current criminal justice reform efforts in Olympia.

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For Padden, it’s simple math.

“This is in no means some witch hunt or anything. We’re just trying to keep our citizens safe, and you never know when somebody’s going to be out on the highway and end up being the victim of vehicular assault, or vehicular homicide,” Padden said ahead of a floor vote in the Senate this week.

“The fact of the matter is that folks that [get] multiple DUIs, repeat offenders,” he continued, “are the ones most likely to have vehicular assaults or vehicular homicide.”

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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