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Thu., April 18, 2013, 6:47 p.m.

Tougher DUI penalties need work, panel told

OLYMPIA – Efforts to fast-track a crackdown on repeat drunk drivers, announced with bipartisan fanfare Tuesday, hit some go slow warnings Thursday from prosecutors, judges and cops.

They're raising so many questions that a key committee chairman all but acknowledged Thursday the Legislature might not have a final bill ready by the end of its regular session just nine days away.

“The bill has some significant flaws,” Rep. Roger Goodman, R-Kirkland, the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee, acknowledged during a hearing on House Bill 2030. “We’re not going to jam this bill through.”

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The bill tries to toughen penalties for repeat violations of driving under the influence or DUI. As currently written, it would require a person to have an ignition interlock attached to a car that is impounded when the driver is cite for a first DUI offense; it would give the person convicted of a second DUI offense within seven years a choice between six months in jail or six months of substance abuse treatment with constant monitoring to ensure no alcohol use.

For the third and fourth offense within seven years, it would require a year in jail, and a ban on buying alcohol for 10 years. The proposal also extends penalties for drunk drivers to drivers under the influence of marijuana.

Flanked by legislators, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the push against repeat drunk drivers on Tuesday, saying the state will stop giving “free passes” to impaired drivers.

“Every person must be accountable and responsible for their actions,” Inslee said.

But some requirements of HB 2030 would be difficult, expensive or legally suspect, critics said Thursday. Impound lots might not have the expertise to install an ignition interlock before releasing the car, and that would likely happen before the suspect is charged, let alone convicted. In some counties, a person arrested for DUI can wait months before being formally charged, and a shortage of prosecutors is creating a bottleneck in handling the cases.

The state would do better spending money on more attorneys, Tom McBride of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said.

“You’re going to pass some changes into law and declare victory,” McBride said, but almost everything in the bill will be challenged in court.

Don Pierce, a lobbyist for the state’s sheriffs and police chiefs, said suggested holding off on mandatory interlocks until a second DUI offense, or at least require a judicial review. A provision requiring a repeat offender to report twice a day to the sheriff’s office to be tested for alcohol consumption would tie up manpower, and might be better handled by new devices that can detect alcohol in a person’s body and report in by cell phone.

“You as a Legislature have been sending mixed messages this session about saying it’s OK to drink and drive,” Pierce said. It has approved bills that allow alcohol at some movie theaters, farmers markets and day spas, he said, all places drive away from after drinking.

Medical marijuana advocates said expanding the DUI laws to cover marijuana don’t work because there’s no accepted level of intoxication for that drug. There’s no ignition interlock that works for the key chemical in marijuana. That’s measured through a blood test, meaning repeat DUI marijuana offenders would go to a sheriff’s office twice a day for expensive blood draws.

Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo, said she’s concerned about drunk drivers, but also about civil rights. Some people who worry about violating civil rights by expanding background checks for gun sales seem willing to rush through a bill that violates rights of people accused of drunk driving.

“I want to make sure we’re not. . . being so reactionary we don’t see the forest for the trees,” she said.

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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