Legislature votes to make 4th DUI a felony

Senate passes bill six times – House votes after Renton man arrested for 11th DUI

OLYMPIA – The state House approved a bill Thursday night that makes the 4th DUI a felony in Washington state, sending the bill to the governor’s desk after two long years of effort.

The Senate had passed the bill six times since 2015 — unanimously, every time. Yet not until Thursday did the bill receive a vote in the House. The bill appeared to die again last week, but when a Renton man was arrested for driving under the influence for the 11th time, and the news was made public Tuesday, multiple media outlets made the connection with the state’s weak felony DUI law and lent pressure for its passage. The measure passed the House 85-11, as the Washington Legislature prepared to adjourn its regular 2017 session by the weekend.

“I suppose we could say Dean Hermsen of Renton gave this bill the final push it needed,” said the bill’s sponsor Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “People wondered how he still could be driving, and why he wasn’t behind bars in the first place. He showed us just how lax our DUI laws really are.

“But I think the credit really belongs to the families of DUI victims who came to the Capitol so many times over the last two years, to plead with us to reduce the carnage on our highways. Our hearts go out to the people who have been affected. And the rest of us ought to be haunted by the fact that if we had acted sooner we might have saved more lives.”

Washington currently has the weakest felony DUI law in the country, requiring four misdemeanor DUI convictions over 10 years before the fifth offense can be charged as a felony.

Senate Bill 5037 allows prosecutors to file felony charges on the fourth offense within 10 years. Offenders with no other criminal history would be sent to prison for 13 to 17 months, rather than serving shorter sentences in county jails. About 200 drivers would be sent to prison annually.

“This bill takes aim at the repeat offender who poses the greatest danger on our highways,” Padden said. “Studies show that the typical offender drives while impaired 80 times before he or she is finally caught.

“Every other state with a felony DUI law is more stringent than we are. Most states permit felony charges on the third offense, including our neighboring states of Oregon and Idaho. Someday I hope we join them.

“I want to be clear that this was never a partisan issue. Every time the bill came to the floor of the Senate, every member voted yes, regardless of party, and I want to thank all those who gave it their support. We should also recognize the strong support we received from police, prosecutors and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“Rather than dwell on the reasons for delay, let us recognize that the Legislature has finally taken an important step to reduce this most preventable tragedy.”