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WA lawmakers propose harsher penalties for DUIs

Last updated February 14, 2011 5:43 p.m. PT

By MOLLY ROSBACH
ASSOCIATED PRESS

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Law enforcement officials and families of drunken driving victims rallied on Monday in support of several bills proposing stricter penalties for DUI convictions, asking lawmakers to hold offenders responsible for their actions.

Friends and family members of people killed by drunken drivers say the potential costs to the justice system could not be more important than the safety of other drivers, and that lawmakers need to hold offenders accountable.

“You have not done enough to protect victims in this state,” said Erica Benge, whose friends were killed by a drunken driver last year. “We need to get these people off the road.”

But opponents to the bills argue that laws targeting DUI offenders need to focus on prevention and treatment, instead of more cost-incurring jail time, which many smaller jurisdictions cannot afford.

Lawmakers in the House Judiciary committee heard testimony on a slew of bills that address a range of DUI-related issues, including longer sentences for first-time offenders and the required installation of ignition interlock devices for convicted negligent or reckless drivers.

A bill presented by Rep. Orcutt, R-Kalama, would raise the seriousness level of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault and enact longer sentences accordingly. Vehicular homicide would be equated to first-degree manslaughter. In most cases of vehicular assault and homicide affected by the change, the bill would more than double the sentence length imposed under current law.

The bill also proposes that sentences be served consecutively, not concurrently.

Orcutt reminded listeners of a case last summer when a couple was killed by a drunken driver while on their motorcycles. The offender received less than four years for causing the deaths of two people, he said.

“The sentences did not fit the crime,” he said.

Rep. Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, proposed a bill to impose harsher sentences on first-time DUI offenders. For offenders with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or lower, the minimum would increase from one day to three days, and for those over a 0.15 level, the minimum would increase from two days to one week. Offenders would pay the cost of incarceration.

Patricia Fulton of the Washington Defenders Association argued that most offenders will not be able to pay for their incarceration, and those costs will fall upon the city or county to pay.

“We think the cost is too burdensome,” Fulton said. “Current law as it stands is appropriate.”

If someone is going to be impacted by a short period of jail time, she said, they will be impacted by the current one- or two-day minimum; if they’re not, then an increase to three days or a week still isn’t going to solve the problem.

Other bills presented at Monday’s hearing proposed including prior offenses when determining if an offender’s DUI should count as a felony, and requiring that persons convicted of reckless or negligent driving be required to install ignition interlock devices to ensure they cannot drive while impaired.

Lawmakers also touched on the establishment of DUI specialty courts, where nonviolent offenders would go through substance abuse therapy.

The DUI bills are HB 1113, HB 1167, HB 1556, HB 1789 and HB 1646.

Online: http://www.leg.wa.gov

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