Timing is everything in politics. And perhaps that was the case when the state Legislature finally passed a bill to toughen the state’s DUI law.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, had made several attempts to change state law so that a fourth driving-under-the-influence offense could be charged as a felony, which would come with prison time.
The Senate had passed the bill unanimously six times since 2015, but House leadership had refused to allow a floor vote. SB 5037 looked to be headed for the same fate, when a repeat offender drew attention to the issue.
Dean Karl Hermsen of Renton was arrested in the wee hours of April 14 by two state troopers who discovered he had 10 previous DUIs. The arrest drew media attention on the West Side, and several days later the House voted to pass SB 5037. Before that, it had not been scheduled for a floor vote, though it passed the House Public Safety and Appropriations committees.
Hermsen already has two felony DUI convictions and has served prison time, so his case wasn’t the most precise example for why the bill was needed. But it did serve as a reminder that Washington state had the most lax law in the nation among states with felony DUI laws.
Before the new law was passed, Washington’s threshold for a felony charge was the fifth offense. In Idaho and Oregon, it’s three offenses. That’s Padden’s long-term goal.
Now a fourth offense will be the trigger for a class C felony, which carries a 13- to 17-month prison sentence.
Padden said in a news release that the Hermsen arrest, along with the impassioned testimony of families that have been victimized by drunken driving, was the key to pushing the bill to final passage.
An estimated 200 drivers a year will be charged with felony DUI under the new law. That will mean more in incarceration costs, but repeat offenders are ticking time bombs who can take people’s lives at any time. Padden cited research showing people will typically drive impaired 80 times before they’re caught.
The state needed to toughen the law to lower the risk of tragedy.
Rep. Timm Ormsby of Spokane voted no, saying repeat offenders need treatment not incarceration, and he pointed out that the Senate budget is stingy on money for recruiting and retaining treatment professionals. That’s a valid point, but removing repeat offenders from the road is still justified.
Most people would find one DUI arrest to be an embarrassing and life-altering event. But when drivers are on their fourth arrest, the criminal justice system must be able to intervene to protect public safety.
Hermsen, the Renton offender, was required to have an ignition interlock that would lock him out if he were drunk, but the vehicle he was driving this month didn’t have one. He was charged for failing to have the device, plus he did not have a valid driver’s license. Hermsen was first arrested for DUI in 1984.
Some people just aren’t going to comply, and the state needs to be able to remove them from the road sooner rather than later – when it may be too late.
To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on “Opinion.”
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