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Victims’ families testify in support of bills targeting drunken drivers

Thu., Jan. 31, 2008

OLYMPIA – 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 toughen the sentences for those who kill.

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

Hurst said he vividly recalls his experience as a rookie cop who, 27 years ago, had to tell a man that his wife and child had been killed by a drunken driver. In the following two years, Hurst said, he arrested 190 people on drunken driving charges.

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. Russell fled to Ireland, was recaptured after several years, and earlier this month was sentenced to 14 years in prison. 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. Morrow told lawmakers that although he didn’t want Russell to spend the rest of his life in prison, he would have liked “a more appropriate sentence.”

“So easily you could be in my shoes,” another grieving parent, Lakewood’s Kathleen Gilbert, told lawmakers, as she struck the table with anger. “Ken was my only child.”

Among the bills discussed Wednesday:

“HB 2621: Under certain circumstances, sentences for multiple convictions of vehicular assault and vehicular homicide would have to be served one after the other, not concurrently.

“HB 2705: Would require that the two-year add-on when a drunken or drugged driver kills someone be served in a cell, not on house arrest or work-release. And it must be served after all other sentences, not concurrently.

“HB 3254: Would allow drivers whose licenses were yanked for DUI to get new ones if their cars are equipped with breath-testing ignition locks.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, said that by requiring the ignition devices, New Mexico has seen a 30 percent reduction in drunken driving deaths.

“HB 2704: Under Washington law, a driver can be charged with a felony if he or she has five DUI convictions within 10 years. This bill would include out-of-state convictions in that total.

“A DUI is a DUI no matter where it occurred, and it counts,” said Rep. Pat Lantz, D-Gig Harbor, the prime sponsor.

“HB 2771: The most controversial of the proposals, this would 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 adviser to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who’s pushing the bill.

Washington 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, such as the 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.”

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