As much as we would love to see an end to impaired driving and with it, the need to keep sponsoring DUI legislation, we unfortunately know there is still much work to be done.
Last week the Senate Law and Justice Committee heard testimony on Senate Bill 5054, a measure I introduced with the support of Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, to strengthen the state’s felony-DUI law and reduce the number of people who become victims of impaired drivers.
Washington law now makes the fourth DUI conviction a felony, but courts may consider only convictions within the previous 10 years when determining the sentence. SB 5054 would extend the “look-back” in DUI cases, allowing courts to consider convictions over the previous 15 years.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because similar measures passed in 2020 in the House of Representatives and the Senate, with slightly different wording. The House failed to vote on ironing out the differences, so state law did not change.
The public must keep the pressure up on lawmakers to act on this year’s bill. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has closed bars and reduced traffic, impaired driving is up substantially. Repeat DUI offenders continue to pose the greatest danger on our roads and highways. Those with a prior DUI are 67 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a comparable person with no convictions.
While our legislation would affect a limited number of chronic DUI offenders, these offenders are also the worst of the worst. They’re the ones you want to get off the road because they’re most likely to take somebody’s life or seriously injure innocent victims.
In 2018, Aaron Gentry drove the wrong-way down Interstate 5 in Marysville with a blood-alcohol level nearly three times the legal limit, before crashing into and killing 28-year-old Miriam Robinson. Gentry was previously convicted of four DUIs and three additional drunk-driving related charges; however, only two had occurred during the 10-year window needed to qualify the last as a felony.
Then there was the case of Dean Hermsen, who barely escaped a 12th DUI conviction in 2019. He is one of two people with 11 DUI convictions in Washington over the past 36 years. Another five people have 10 convictions each during that time.
Those testifying at last week’s hearing called these kinds of habitual repeat offenders the most dangerous people on the road and pleaded with the committee to make it easier to take them off the street.
Amy Freedheim, senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County, told the committee that the third quarter of 2020 saw a 13.1 percent increase in DUI-related traffic deaths compared to 2019. As she put it, multiple repeat DUI offenders “know they have an addiction; they know their driving is dangerous; and yet they continue to drive impaired.”
Miriam Norman, a traffic safety resource prosecutor for the state of Washington, testified that DUI offenders who re-offend tend to do so about six years later, on average, and a 10-year look-back is “not catching all of the people who choose to recidivate… These offenders are eluding felony prosecution simply because we can’t get it done in time.”
We have an obligation to address this public-safety nightmare, which is harming way too many families in our state. By increasing the look-back period, this bill would have serious consequences for those who refuse to stop driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
Passage of SB 5054 will result in a reduction of deaths and injuries on Washington’s roads.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is a former district-court judge who serves as the lead Republican on the Senate Law and Justice Committee. He represents the 4th Legislative District.