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Eye On Olympia

Fred Russell case may spur tougher drunk-driving penalties

Fred Russell may be sitting in a cell, but his name’s popping up frequently in Olympia, where state lawmakers are weighing changes to catch drunken drivers and toughening the sentences for those who kill.

“We will tell people once and for all that this is unacceptable,” Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, said at a hearing yesterday.

Some 27 years after the fact, he said, he vividly recalls the horror of being a rookie cop who had to tell a man that his wife and child had been killed by a drunken driver.

Russell, a Washington State University student, was drunk, speeding and partly in the oncoming lane when his Blazer caused a chain-reaction wreck that killed three other students and severely injured three more in 2001. He fled to Ireland, was recaptured after several years, and earlier this month was sentenced to 14 years in prison. But under state law, he’s serving multiple sentences simultaneously.

“With time off for good behavior, he may still serve a decade,” said Rich Morrow, whose daughter was one of the students killed in the crash.

Among the bills under discussion: consecutive — not concurrent — sentences in cases like Russell’s and ignition interlocks and a conditional license for people who would otherwise lose their license due to a DUI conviction.

“We have to acknowledge that people are going to drive anyway,” said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.

One in five fatal crashes in Washington, he said, involve someone without a driver’s license. By requiring the ignition devices, he said, New Mexico has seen a 30 percent reduction in drunk-driving deaths.

Also being debated this year is a controversial plan to allow police to ask judges to approve road checkpoints where they’d stop drivers to see if they’ve been drinking.

“Sobriety checkpoints save lives,” said John Lane, a policy advisor to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who’s pushing the bill.

State Patrol Chief John Batiste said checkpoints in other states have cut DUI-caused fatalities by 20 percent. With 250 people in Washington dying annually in such wrecks, that would save about 50 lives each year.

The bill is opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which says it violates the state constitution’s ban on arbitrary searches.

“We are not here to say that DUIs are not a problem. Obviously they are,” ACLU lobbyist Jennifer Shaw said. But the state has other means to curtail them, like ignition locks or extra police patrols, she said.

Among those who testified Wednesday: Gordon and Kathy Schuster, who drove from Wenatchee to urge lawmakers in Olympia to toughen penalties. Their daughter, Angela Svendsen, was killed a year ago when the car she was riding in was struck by a drunken driver going the wrong way on an interstate.

“Angela is not coming home because of good behavior,” said Gordon Schuster, his voice breaking as his wife wept beside him. “She’s not coming home because of time already spent. She’s dead. She’s not coming home.”

Read the full print story here.


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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