On July 1, Washington drivers with four previous DUI convictions in the past 10 years will be eligible for a felony conviction.
Why this matters: felonies are treated in a different court system and penalties are much stiffer — up to five years in a state prison rather than the current maximum of a year in the local jail.
House Bill 3317 passed unanimously in both houses of the legislature and was signed into law in 2006. Its primary sponsor was Rep. Patricia Lantz, D-Gig Harbor.
It signals a new direction for the legislature in DUI law: that following years of lowering the blood-alcohol content threshold to .08 for a DUI conviction — and thus increase the quantity of offenders — lawmakers are pursuing more quality convictions through increased incarceration.
Are the penalties too harsh? Too lenient?
Regardless, the DUI felony law will change the legal landscape. Here’s a few issues attorneys have told me they’re encountering:
Prosecutors will have to shuffle attorneys from their office’s district (misdemeanor) court to superior court to handle DUI, or they’ll have their felony division prosecutors handle them.
Defense attorneysmay charge an increased rate for DUI felony defense. An attorney told me the other day that they may raise their rates, too, to defend a DUI in superior court, where the stakes are raised.
Jurors will, well, be asked to serve more: in misdemeanor court, six decide a case. In superior court, where felony DUIs will be handled, they’ll need 12.
Superior Court Judges will have to learn the finely articulated rules of DUI — the interpretation of field sobriety tests, and how to analyze an officer’s meaty DUI arrest report.
The Department of Corrections will take DUI offenders for the first time. That means more jail space for them, and perhaps less jail space for local county lockups, who won’t need to house them anymore.
Judges may also need to set some precedents in DUI felony case law. For instance, old convictions aren’t typically admissible as evidence in a felony case. But in felony DUI, prosecutors will have to prove the current DUI and the prior four-plus convictions.
Deferred prosecution — in which if offenders keep their noses clean for a period of time and possibly get treatment — is generally only available at misdemeanor level, with felonies being more about punishment. Will DUI felons be eligible for deferred prosecution?