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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ignition device law a test for agencies

Police, sheriff’s officials ponder implications for workers

Changes to a state law put a fired Spokane police sergeant in a new class of drunken drivers: first-time offenders required to drive with an ignition interlock device.

That new requirement led to Brad Thoma’s dismissal from the Spokane Police Department after the department said public safety would be compromised by having an officer who had to pass a breathalyzer test any time he needed to start his patrol car. It appears to be the first time a law enforcement agency statewide has had to consider the issue.

Now officials with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office are wondering what the requirement could mean for a lieutenant suspected of a drunken car crash in Liberty Lake. While the Spokane Police Department and Washington State Patrol handle similar situations on a case-by-case basis, Sheriff’s Office policy calls for employees to be fired after their second drunken driving offense.

“It’s still kind of unclear as to what that means for somebody who is working,” said Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.

Prosecutors have not charged Lt. Stephen Jones in connection with the Jan. 8 rollover crash in Liberty Lake. Results of his blood-alcohol test are expected this month.

The 2008 Washington Legislature adjusted drunken driving laws beginning in January 2009 to allow all offenders to regain their driving privileges if they install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles, instead of simply suspending their driving privileges for a period of time. The devices test a driver’s blood-alcohol level and prevent the vehicle from starting if alcohol is detected.

“It’s a very good deterrent to keep repeat offenses from happening,” said Linda Thompson, a Spokane coordinator with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The change has been great for business at places such as Audio Installations in Spokane Valley, which installs ignition interlock devices and leases them for about $75 per month.

“It’s been doing really well for us,” said owner Dale Schott. The shop used to average six to eight installations every two weeks. Now it’s up to 20, Schott said.

But the new requirement has surprised employers unaware that first-time offenders must get an interlock device, even under deferred prosecution agreements in which convictions are generally stricken from offender records after intensive counseling and court-ordered monitoring.

Thoma was granted deferred prosecution in November for a Sept. 23 crash. He was one of 162 drunken driving defendants to enter deferred prosecution in Spokane County District Court last year – an increase of 18 since 2008, according to court records.

Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said she’s the first law enforcement official in Washington to be faced with that new requirement when considering future employment. A required ignition interlock device, she decided, makes someone unemployable as a driver. “I don’t need to stick my finger in the wind and say, ‘How do people feel about it?’ ” Kirkpatrick said.

Thoma offered to pay for an ignition interlock device on his squad car and pay for the additional insurance, but Kirkpatrick refused.

She also refused to sign a waiver that would allow Thoma to drive without one. That provision was added to the new law to help offenders avoid losing their jobs, said Thompson, of MADD.

“We would hope that law enforcement would hold themselves to a higher level,” she said. “The problem is they are human beings, and alcohol can get a grip on anyone.”

The city had offered to see if Thoma qualified for a noncommissioned position elsewhere in the city if he left the police department for the two years he’s required to drive with the device.

Thoma has filed a $4 million claim against the city, alleging he was wrongly fired because he’s an alcoholic.

If Kirkpatrick was unwilling to sign a waiver allowing Thoma to drive without the required device, she should have found another position for him in the department, said Thoma’s lawyer, Bob Dunn.

Not possible, Kirkpatrick said.

“I need all hands on deck,” she said.

At the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, policy calls for first-time DUI offenders to be suspended for a week and undergo alcohol treatment. A second DUI means termination.

Knezovich said the ignition interlock law is so new there’s too much uncertainty as to what certain provisions actually mean.

The sheriff has been looking to the county’s lawyers for guidance but said he’s been told that because it’s a new law, it’s tough to provide greater certainty.