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Sat., April 20, 2013, midnight

Editorial: DUI bill’s size, timing poses challenges

With two weeks left in this session of the Legislature, and no budget agreement in sight, lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee this week took a detour toward harsher measures for drunken drivers. The goal is worthy, but we wonder if a well-thought-out, comprehensive measure can emerge with so little time left and so much other work to do.

As testimony presented to Senate and House committees made clear, implementing the series of graduated penalties that would apply to first-time and repeat offenders will require more and better technology, law and judicial personnel and, for the incorrigible, jail cells. There are dollar signs attached to all that.

One small example: Ignition interlocks that prevent a drunk from starting a vehicle would be installed when a first-time offender is charged, not when they are convicted, which may not occur for months. The state will have to hire one or two additional employees to the three state workers who now verify the reliability of the devices and the vendors.

Cars without court-ordered interlocks, as was the case in a fatal accident in Seattle last month, could be seized. Offenders driving the wrong way on a highway, or with children in the car, would be subject to additional penalties.

After three convictions, the offender would be barred from buying alcohol for 10 years. The fourth offense, not the fifth as in current law, becomes a felony.

The two bills before lawmakers do call for implementation of the 24/7 Sobriety Project, a program launched in South Dakota in 2005 and since expanded to North Dakota and Montana. Persons convicted of drunken driving must submit to a breath test twice daily, a drill that could be performed by camera-equipped ignition locks like those already in use here. Offenders who fail or skip the test go to jail for a day or two.

A study released in November concluded the program reduced repeat offenses by 12 percent and, a side benefit, domestic violence by 9 percent. And there were fewer crashes involving alcohol use.

In the meantime, the Washington State Patrol is also having success with zero tolerance patrols in West Side counties. The program will next be implemented in Spokane County.

Witnesses at the legislative hearings presented good ideas, and many caveats, especially concerns regarding possible violations against potential illegal searches when taking breath or blood tests for alcohol. One bill calls for a $500 fine if a driver refuses to take a breathalyzer test.

But the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday made blood testing against the driver’s will without a search warrant much tougher.

The legalization of marijuana introduces other questions about what constitutes impairment.

This is complex legislation. One bill is 80 pages long. A stripped-down measure implementing, or at least trying, 24/7 testing, and imposing mandatory sentences might be all that can be done this year.

Although legislative efforts to confront driving under the influence offenses have been ongoing, there was not much energy behind those exertions this year until two recent Seattle-area fatality accidents involving drunken drivers, one a repeat offender. It would be unfortunate if, in the haste to respond, the Legislature overreached.

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