Washington state lawmakers consider tightening DUI laws

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The man accused of driving drunk when he crashed and killed a woman last weekend in Arlington had a long history of DUI convictions. But under Washington state drunk driving laws, none of that was enough to keep him from getting behind the wheel.

The driver had six DUI convictions dating back to 1981 — including two in the past 10 years and the most recent in 2016. He wasn’t supposed to be behind the wheel. He had a suspended license and was required to have an ignition interlock device. Still, he drove the wrong way onto I-5 and caused the multi-vehicle crash.

Last weekend’s wrong-way crash killed a 28-year-old woman who was visiting from Oregon.

“It definitely feels like a preventable tragedy,” her sister told KIRO 7. “This never should have happened.”

It is the same story state lawmakers have heard for years from families who’ve suffered similar tragedies. Dan Schulte has a one such story. His parents were killed and his wife and newborn were severely injured when they were run down by Mark Mullan in 2013 — a repeat DUI offender with five arrests in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood.

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Mullen was on probation for his latest DUI, issued just a few months earlier. He wasn’t supposed to be behind the wheel. He also had a suspended license and was supposed to have an ignition interlock device.

Sound familiar?

“Of all types of tragedies, this is one of the most preventable types of tragedy,” Schulte said. “These things — they keep happening. But they don’t have to.”

Shulte testified before state lawmakers during one of several hearings to change laws and make a DUI a felony rather than a misdemeanor on a fourth offense rather than the fifth. Karen Bartlett testified at all the same hearings after her husband, Russ, was run down and killed in Yakima by a woman with five DUI convictions. She told KIMA-TV the same thing.

“It’s too late for us and our family to have anything done now,” Bartlett said. “But we are looking ahead to other families so that they don’t have to endure the same thing that we had to endure.”

Washington DUI laws

Republican State Senator Mike Padden pushed for years after the Schulte case to pass a bill (SB 5037) making a fourth DUI conviction in 10 years a felony. It finally passed last year and is now state law.

But it’s not enough according to Padden, and Democratic co-sponsor David Frockt who believe a second or third DUI should count as a felony and require prison time. Frockt had a bill this last session (SB 6250) that would also have done away with the 10-year look back, meaning anyone with three or more DUIs would face a felony regardless of how long ago they were.

“Hypothetically, this law had been in place in 2016 when this guy got his sixth DUI — even though it was beyond 10 years back that would have been a felony and he probably would have served time in prison,” Frockt said. “Maybe that would have been a situation where he could have been cleaned up or certainly gotten off the road.”

But despite bi-partisan support, Frockt said his bill didn’t get much traction.

“There is a lot of discussion about the cost of incarcerating people who are repeat offenders,” Frockt said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. I think there are other areas where we need to have criminal justice reform. This is one where someone is kind of repeatedly showing that they can’t control themselves and whatever treatment options that they’re getting are not working. We need to be more aggressive.”

He plans to re-introduce the bill in the upcoming session, and also look at other possibilities such as expanding programs that have been successful in other states. For instance, South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety program that requires repeat offenders to have breathalyzers twice a day. There were pilot programs in our state, but cost was again an issue.

“So that a person who continues to potentially show that they’re not being sober and they’ve been a habitual offender then they would have a series of penalties and jail to try to get them kind of cleaned up,” Frockt said.

Frockt says there has to be a sense of urgency for the Legislature to do more to stop repeat DUI offenders from getting behind the wheel, especially because data suggests “people may drive 80 times drunk for every incident in which they’re actually caught.”