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Committee OKs tougher DUI laws, but funding still unclear

By JEFF RHODES | TheOlympiaReport.com

Washington state lawmakers may be back in Olympia to work on a budget deal, that isn’t the only item on their plates.

Members of the Senate’s Law and Justice Committee, on the second day of the special legislative session, approved the package of enhanced penalties for driving under the influence Gov. Jay Inslee has been pushing for since the start of the regular session in January.

Rather than being sent directly to the Senate floor for a vote, however, the measure was referred on Tuesday to the Ways and Means Committee to debate how to fund it. Likewise, a pair of related bills that would extend Washington state’s beer tax and increase taxes on hard liquor, using the proceeds to pay the costs associated with the stiffer DUI penalties, were also referred to Ways and Means — but without a recommendation.

“I know everyone here agrees we need to increase the severity of sentences on repeat offenders as well as the likelihood of their going to trial,” said Sen. Adam Kline (D-Seattle), prime sponsor of both the underlying bill and the two funding bills. “But unless we also find a way to pay for them, we’re not doing anything but sending an unfunded mandate to our cities and counties.”

Among the provisions in the DUI bill:

• Law enforcement officials would be able to take drivers into custody if there were probable cause to believe they are intoxicated or have previous DUI offenses;

• The suspect’s car would be impounded and could not be released to anyone until an ignition-interlock device had been installed, even though there had been no conviction yet;

• Anyone convicted of DUI or with a blood-alcohol content of at least .15 percent, and who has two or three prior offenses within the previous seven years, must be sentenced to 364 days’ incarceration — instead of 120 to 364 days, 150 days of home monitoring, and the person must be prohibited from purchasing alcohol for 10 years; and,

• Driving while impaired would become a felony on the fourth offense rather than the gross misdemeanor it is now.

Committee members on both sides of the aisle agreed with the intent of the legislation, but in some cases argued the standards still weren’t tough enough or that the emphasis was misplaced.

“Absolutely, without question, we need to strengthen our DUI laws,” said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-West Seattle). “But right now the focus is on punishment when our cities and counties lack the capacity to incarcerate more offenders. The real key is to provide for treatment. Just putting people in jail isn’t enough.”

“Personally, I’d be OK with lowering the blood-alcohol level for impairment to .1 percent,” said Sen. Pam Roach (R-Auburn). “People absolutely shouldn’t drink at all before getting behind the wheel. But I really think the people themselves need to accept a lot of the blame for establishing the culture of drinking in this country that creates these problems.”

The public shouldn’t blame the Legislature for not doing enough, Roach said, when it votes to approve ballot measures that legalize recreational marijuana use and allow hard liquor sales in grocery stores.

“The people need to know they’re at least partially at fault here,” she said.

 

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