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Thursday, November 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Legislature looking to make changes in DUI law

UPDATED: Tue., April 9, 2019

The Spokane County Jail includes parts of the Public Safety Building, which houses the sheriff and police departments and some courtrooms. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Jail includes parts of the Public Safety Building, which houses the sheriff and police departments and some courtrooms. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
By Ryan Blake The Spokesman-Review

OLYMPIA – Drunken drivers might soon be able to avoid a DUI arrest by pulling off the road and taking a nap.

A bill that would make that and other changes to Washington’s impaired driving laws passed the Senate Transportation Committee Tuesday and now heads to the full Senate.

One notable feature of the bill would define vehicles as “safely off the roadway” if the drunken driver has moved to a passenger seat and turned the engine off.

The bill would clear up a portion of the law that can be applied differently, depending on the judge, said Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, one of the bill’s sponsors.

“If you’re stupid enough to get on the road impaired but then smart enough to realize you shouldn’t be driving, get off the road, get out of the driver seat and turn the car off,” Goodman said.

Those with a valid Department of Licensing-issued disability placard could use the defense if they remain in the driver’s seat.

The bill would extend the timeline for felony driving under the influence provisions to the fourth conviction in 15 years, up from the current 10-year look back.

The bill is intended to reduce the number of vehicular homicides and assaults, which often are the result of serial DUI offenders, said Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley.

The bill originally proposed looking back 25 years but was reduced to 15 years over concerns about the cost of added prisoners in the state corrections system.

Using the 15-year standard, daily prison population would increase by 129 people and cost the state $8 million over four years, according to an estimate from the Office of Financial Management. The 25-year period would have doubled the cost, adding 264 prisoners at $16 million.

Padden, who sponsored a bill in 2017 that brought down the felony DUI threshold from five to four, said he will keep working and hopes to one day make three convictions a felony.

“Anything that adds even one additional bed to the prison system is scrutinized very, very heavily,” Padden said. “I’d love to go farther, but I don’t want to not seek an improvement.”

Any extension of the look-back period would give prosecutors more leverage in encouraging convicted drunken drivers to seek treatment, said Russell Brown of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

A person convicted of impaired driving with passengers under age 16 would receive increased sentences for each minor passenger and those sentences would have to be served consecutively. Offenders would receive an additional 12 months of ignition interlock, up from six months, for each minor passenger in the vehicle.

Ignition interlock devices could be imposed for any impaired driving offense, not just ones that involve alcohol. Offenders ordered to have an ignition lock would receive an additional 180-day term if they are caught driving a vehicle without one. Law enforcement could impound any vehicle that person was driving. The breath sample alcohol concentration the device registers would be lowered to 0.020, down from 0.025.

Those convicted of DUI in conjunction with other serious crimes would not be allowed to earn release credits under the bill.

A court could choose to not impose jail time for those convicted of nonfelony DUI who face substantial risk to their physical or mental well-being. They could be sentenced to a sobriety program or electronic home monitoring.

Some lawmakers wanted the bill to allow officers to administer blood tests to drivers suspected of driving under the influence. It could be helpful in identifying drivers with multiple substances in their system, Goodman said.

But that part of the bill was removed by the Senate Ways and Means Committee over concerns that drawing blood could escalate already tense encounters.

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