DUI Moves into Felony Realm

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?

19 thoughts on “DUI Moves into Felony Realm

  1. I’d say waiting until the drunk driver has already been caught drunk driving FOUR previous times is too little too late.

    Why not add the DUI to the felony list after s/he was convicted ONCE previously?

    Why should it take FIVE times? Each time a DUI is stopped increases the odds they will be in – cause – a drunk driving accident before the next time they’re stopped….or so it seems to me.
    There is no reason on this earth that a DUI NEEDS FOUR DUI previous convictions before marking the FIFTH as a felon. Is there?

    In the meantime, drunk drivers will go on causing accidents and murdering innocent people…children. Children whose only sin is to be on the same road at the same time as the drunk and impaired drivers.
    Sharon O’Hara

  2. I think the argument here is that it would require more prisons just for DUI offenders. I say begin construction today.

  3. I also think that if a person does not learn the first time around. The penalties should be harsher. Penalties for driving under the influence is a tough call because addictions are recognized as a medical condition. A comparison could be a diabetic person took to much insulin and did not eat enough to make sure they did not have a reaction while driving. Then there is the argument of available treatment. Addiction is hard to diagnose, a person may not believe they are an addict. I believe our Governor has allotted a huge amount of money for Drug and alcohol treatment in hope of reducing recidivism. This hope is for a reduction in all crimes that involve drug and alcohol problems. Will it work? Time will tell

  4. PLEASE tell me I misread what was written! It takes FIVE DUIs to make it a felony??? You’ve got to be kidding. This sure will open a huge can of worms for those of us that don’t drink and drive. There is zero excuses for anyone to get behind a wheel after drinking. It’s those criminals that cost us law abiding taxpayers more money through insurance, health care, and everything else. Most have every excuse under the sun as to why they were driving and those are the ones that blame the police that their rights were violated and sadly have their case dismissed. If you are found under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, your license should be pulled, sit behind bars for awhile, do community service, and be found guilty of a felony the first time!
    My girlfriend of many years was killed by a drunk driver last year. It was this young man’s second DUI that involved a serious accident. At the time that he killed Heather it had been less then a year since he put another innocent person in a wheel chair for life. Today he is STILL out driving around. I guess he can feel safe in knowing that he can do this three more times before worrying about getting a felony. (Trust me I was in the court room when they slapped him on the hand and in a sense said “bad boy…”. Heather’s parents pleaded with the judge for a stiff sentence and looked at the boy’s parents and said, “…your son is coming home. We buried our daughter in pieces…Why didn’t he just call a cab?”

  5. The first DUI should be a felony. No plea bargain or fancy lawyer tricks, just a ticket to the nearest prison. Additionally, we should lower the limit to .01%.

    DUI’s committed under the influence of alcohol or other drug is a preventable crime. A DUI is the result of someone being lazy, ignorant and selfish. If people who drink, exercised a little bit of personal responsibility and self-control at this very minute, DUI’s would cease to exist within an hour or two. It’s that easy!

    Don’t get me wrong, I like a beer or two every now and then. However, if I know that I will be driving within the next 8-10 hours, I make other transportation arrangements or even better, I just don’t take a drink…it’s that easy!

    Oh and by the way, if we need more prisons, we have plenty of land by the airport…as Jeff said “begin construction today”!

  6. I could care less if a DUI driver is an addict or alcoholic. They are taking someone else’s life in their intoxicated hands just the same… I’m all for a treatment program for those ameniable to it, while they are in JAIL OR PRISON serving their sentence! I am tired of people making excuses instead of taking responsibility for their own actions. CMC Spouse is right, the law passed is more than a little weak. However, are the citizens willing to pay more in taxes to suport a tougher law, say 2 or more DUIs are a felony?

  7. I understand addiction….I understand that some ‘use’ addiction as an excuse for poor behavior. “Poor me, I can’t help drinking”…
    I understand addiction because I stopped – cold, no pills, no crutches – a 40 year smoking habit and learned the craving of addiction.
    I CRAVED cigarettes for more than two YEARS after I smoked my last cigarette… la gut wrenching CRAVING to smoke.

    Now… I don’t care who drinks or how much. I care that WE continue to put drunks out on our roads as Russian Roulette bullets knowing they can kill or main innocent people.
    NOBODY should have the right or encouragement to drink and drive. There is no excuse for any drunk to drive…none!

    Take their ‘weapon’ away from them…confiscate the car. Never mind that the spouse might need it… our concern should be protecting the people who need our protection…not the drunk driver or spouse of the drunk driver!

    Why does the drunk driver have more rights than the innocent people on our roads?
    Why don’t they matter to our legislators, to us?
    Sharon O’Hara

  8. In the last legislative session HB 1190 was introduced to make DUI a felony after the second conviction in 7 years. It was sent to the judiciary committee which is where it is now. If this sounds more like it then please write to your representatives telling them so. In fact there are a lot of bills sitting in limbo (Olympia) to strengthen the DUI laws and sentencing guidelines. I spend al ot of time doing courtroom observation on this topic and I am always amazed at how many people we have just in Kitsap going to court for their 8th, 9th, 12th and soon there will be one who has a vehicular homicide and 2 vehicular assaults (DUI) going to court for his 5th DUI. It would not surprise me if he gets a year in jail. I have seen people who have written bad checks receive a 5 year sentence while a person received ONE year for his 12th DUI. (I have yet to hear of anyone being killed by a checkbook.)
    However, I am not yet decided on this felony law. Yes, a felony is a stronger offense, but will the time actually served be much different. I don’t think so. In fact I am afraid that it will be less. Don’t forget that it is not a serious violent crime so those who do get sentenced will be entitled to 33 and 1/3 reduction. Although the law says UP TO 5 years in prison, the minimum is one year and a day. So I expect we will see these felons spending in reality about 8-9 months. And then don’t forget that they could be sent to work release for up to 6 months before the end of the sentence. At least as it is now, an offender with 5 DUIs will be in jail and off the road for one year.
    HB 1190 was introduced this year that would raise the sentence for Veh Homicide by and additional 4 years and Veh Assault by an additional 2 years. Still not enough in my opinion but a step in the right direction. We will see where it goes in the next session.
    Elaine- The legislature has tasked our courts to be rehabilitative when it comes to DUI. Addiction is not hard to diagnose but for some it is hard to accept. Many first time offenders and most repeat offenders have had ample opportunity to make changes in their behavior by going to treatment. If they can’t recover through treatment it is a very sad thing and I do feel bad for those who do not overcome addiction. However there is not an illness in the world that forces a person to drive a car. It is a CHOICE to drive a car under the influence of a mind altering substance and it is a CRIME.

  9. Nora you are absolutely right. Thank you for sharing very accurate information. Maybe working on the standard ranges of sentencing may be a better option. I believe our legislature is doing a very good job. You are right about a lot of bills hanging in limbo. Since next year is a short session I am hoping the most important will be reintroduced early.

  10. “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.”
    This statement in itself is why the law should have been written making your second DUI no matter of the amount of time between convictions a Felony.
    “Medical Condition”, I have never understood how a lifestyle choice got to be a disease. How do you catch alcoholism? You can’t give yourself most cancers or parkinsons. So stop letting these people hide behind their poor desisions. They made a choice to drink a substance they know will impair their ability to operate an automible. They then make another choice to get into that automobile and drive endangering the lives of everyone around them. That is as criminal as going into a crowded mall with a hand gun and opening fire you may or may not hit someone, but it’s still a felony.

  11. I read through all of the comments and I always see the same thing when it comes to crime, lock them up. I agree in some situations but here are some of the problems in my opinion. Number 1 who will pay for it, everyone says lock them up, it costs money to lock them up. Where does it come from? The other issue I see is they will get out — 98 percent of the men and woman locked up get out. As a matter of fact they usually get out in worse shape. With new friends to commit crimes with. We simply can’t afford to lock up everybody forever. In my opinion we need to get smarter with crime. Address the problem, much of the time you help get the addict sober, the behavior changes. You don’t get treatment in prison, it is offered but it is worthless. It is forgotten by the time the offender hits the streets. I am not saying don’t punish, I am saying, then what? Don’t be too hard on our lawmakers, they have to juggle the cost of incarcerating and being tougher on crime. It can’t be easy when the public wants tougher laws but won’t pay more to lock them all up.

  12. It is my opinion that our prisons will not be loaded with those drunks who drink and drive.
    I believe a strong consequence will stop maybe 50 % or more from drinking and driving.
    Drunks CHOSE to drink and drive.
    Stop them. You may be saving your own life.
    Sharon O’Hara

  13. If someone is looking down the barrel of their fourth or fifth DUI, I am guessing that somewhere in the middle of their first, second and third cases, they had an opportunity or two to get help. Did the courts let them down or did they not follow through with it? Hard to say.

    In the utopian world, folks would see the possibility of prison time as a deterrent and would think twice about doing the crime. That doesn’t seem to matter though because people still kill others, people still rob banks and people still drink and drive.

    There are certain people out there who will do what they want how they want and no punishment handed down by the criminal justice system will affect their decision making. They also don’t consider the effect that their actions will have on others. These sociopaths need to be locked up and kept away from those of us who contribute to society.

    If I had a say in where my tax dollars go, I would authorize some of the them to be used for new prisons. You may choose to have some of your monies go to support the arts or pay for a new arena for the Sonics but I want repeat criminals locked up and kept away from my house.

    We all have the opportunity to make the right choices in life. If you make the wrong ones over and over again, The state should protect the other 99% of us from you by taking away your decision making opportunities for a long, long time.

  14. After reading this mornings article about felony drunk drivers I had to respond. I lost my beautiful 20 year old daughter to a man driving drunk the wrong way on I-5. He had just two weeks prior been given probation on his first DUI. It didn’t take 5 DUIs for him to kill my daughter! Why do we give these people so little punishment? If he had killed her with a gun, he would have faced second degree murder charges, and not vehicular homicide which carries only a few months of jail time. A car is a deadly weapon in the hands of a drunk, and people are being slaughtered by them on our roads everyday. It doesn’t stop because there are no consequences. These people go right back out on the roads and kill innocent people like my daughter, and injure others, like my daughter’s passenger. Where is the justice for them? If we impounded the cars of offenders (with no return, they should be auctioned) for the first offense, had mandatory jail time for second and had felony third strike laws for the third, our roads would be safer. I’m tired of defense attorneys ranting about how expensive convicting and punishing DUI offenders is. It cost us the life of my daughter, and the lives of people on our roads everyday. It cost us everything….The job of the state is to keep criminals away from law-abiding citizens on and off our roads. Unfortunatly, those making the laws don’t see it that way.

  15. Dear Leah,
    My heart and my deepest sympathy go out to you and your family. I pray each day that you know that your daughter is in a better place. A place that will never hurt her again. Though not a family member, as I posted before, I lost a very close and dear friend to a drunk driver. It was also his second one. Today he is on our roads still driving. In situations when a person willing knows that drinking and driving can kill, I don’t believe in second chances. Both your daughter’s killer, my girlfriend’s, and all others that drink and drive should be convicted of a felony the first time. No excuses, no fancy attorney that gets the case dismissed, no probation, and most certainly don’t give the criminal five chances to do over. It just makes me sick the message that we are sending to these type of people. “…Go ahead and get behind a wheel. You get five DUIs before worrying about getting a felony…” Truly truly sick!

  16. Here’s one for ya. Today in court was a person charged with DUI, Driving on a suspended license and Driving without an interlock device. He has 7 prior DUIs, 1 pending, and 2 more in another state. This one, if found guilty, will not be a felony because only 2 have been in the last 10 years. This is exactly why we need the third DUI in 10 years to be a felony or even less in my opinion. There are many DUI offenders that have 5 plus convictions spread out over several years and will not get a felony for their next one and some have DUIs in the double digits. As far as I am concerned a drunk driver is an attempted murderer and too many times they succeed.

  17. Nora, Now is the time to start talking to our State Represenitives and Senators. Next year is a short session so the more we talk early the better the chance of being heard. I am sure you are aware of this but many others that read this blog may not be. We may not be able to get every thing we ask for but baby steps add up in time. It is better than doing nothing. My best wishes to you. Your diligence is appreciated and is helping.

  18. Your so right Elaine. HB 1191 is a bill that makes the 3rd DUI in 7 years a felony. It didn’t get very far this last session but maybe if citizens will write to their Senators and Representatives telling them that enough is enough with repeat DUI offenders maybe they will listen. Like you say, its baby steps. See you in Olympia.

  19. Judge Holman has managed to utilize sentencing laws. Things may change a little in our District Courts concerning repeat offenders. Like consecutive sentences instead of concurrent. Options the courts have in place already. Another baby step that may be used more often.

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