Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell is adopting a tougher approach to DUI cases, saying his office will crack down on people charged with driving under the influence, even if it’s their first offense.
Haskell said he became alarmed at the increase in DUI cases since he took office. And recent incidents, including the death of one teenager and the serious injuries suffered by another in a suspected DUI crash on U.S. Highway 395, helped him make his decision.
“I’ve kept a close eye on the filings we’ve had in the last 18 months,” he said. “What I noticed was disturbing.”
His office handled 739 DUIs between Jan. 1 and June 30 – 323 more cases than the office handled in the same period last year.
Part of that increase, however, is because the Spokane Police Department now routinely calls in Washington State Patrol troopers to handle almost all of its DUI arrests, because they are time-consuming, Haskell said. WSP cases are handled through the county prosecutor’s office, while in the past such arrests made by Spokane police would have been handled through the city.
There were 30 DUI arrests in Spokane County over the Fourth of July weekend, and 13 of those were repeat offenders. Haskell said statistics show that one-third of DUI drivers are repeat offenders.
Haskell said he will no longer offer plea deals with reduced charges if a driver has had a DUI arrest in the past seven years.
In recent years, it has been common for first-time offenders to be able to plead guilty to first-degree negligent driving instead of DUI, but that is changing, too. Haskell said that will still be an option if a person has a blood alcohol level (BAC) of .08 or less, but any first-time offender who tests between .081 and .12 will only be offered a reduced charge of reckless driving, which is more serious than negligent driving.
Anyone who has a BAC over 0.121 will not be offered a plea deal, even if it is their first offense, Haskell said. And someone who has a blood level over 0.15 will face a stiffer mandatory minimum sentence.
“A DUI is an unguided missile that is one interchange away from a direct hit,” Haskell said.
Defense attorney Chris Bugbee said he is concerned about the new policy. While he said he can understand cracking down on repeat offenders, he’s worried about the changes as they apply to first-time offenders.
“Many of my clients are very good citizens who make a simple mistake,” Bugbee said. “While bad people do commit DUIs, so do good people.”
Bugbee said he’s also concerned that the “significantly more stringent” DUI policy would cause congestion in the court system.
“I’m afraid Spokane County is going to become a logjam,” he said.
In the end, it’s the responsibility of the prosecutor’s office to see that justice is done in each case, and Bugbee said he’s worried that a one-size-fits-all policy won’t accomplish that, especially for first-time offenders.
“If you can’t look at each case on its own individual merit, I don’t know how you can really say you’re seeking justice.”
The previous DUI policy has been in place for about 20 years, Haskell said. The changes are necessary to act as a deterrent and as a punishment, he said.
“We’re going to prosecute aggressively, more aggressively than we have in 20 years,” he said. “We are going to do everything we can to protect public safety.”
Haskell said he looked at other counties in the state to see how they handled DUIs and the only one with a tougher policy is Adams County, which handles significantly fewer cases.
“We’re the toughest in the area,” he said.
The changes will take effect Aug. 1.