When Gov. Jay Inslee announced he’d call lawmakers back for a special session, he said he didn’t just want them working on the budget. Among his priorities: Toughen up Washington’s drunk driving laws. A bill being negotiated by leadership in all legislative caucuses and the governor would make Washington the toughest state in the nation on those caught driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  

The bills, which are still being tinkered with in closed-door meetings, could jail anyone charged with driving under the influence, put ignition interlock devices in cars much sooner and lengthen jail sentences dramatically for repeat offenders who don’t enter a rehab program. The proposal also previously included some wild new ideas, like banning some repeat DUI offenders from purchasing alcohol for 10 years.

The legislation didn’t take shape until the end of session—though that wasn’t by design. Rep. Roger Goodman (D-45, Kirkland) has been working on DUI legislation since the summer of 2007. Each year, he’s helped pass changes to tighten up state law, bit by bit. This year was no different; he and the Impaired Driving Work Group put together a bill to make mostly technical changes to DUI laws, he says, like making it an aggravating factor if the person charged with a DUI was driving in the opposite direction of traffic.

“We approved it unanimously in committee, but it never made it off the House floor because we spent a whole day trying to get a gun bill out,” he said, referring to the failed all-day effort to pass gun control legislation on the final day for policy bills to make it to the floor.

What followed were several high profile accidents caused by drunk drivers, including one case in North Seattle where a driver with multiple DUI charges killed two pedestrians and injured a 10-day-old boy. Goodman says shortly after the accidents, the governor’s office contacted him. “They said we need to respond, let’s get this bill moving. I asked him to convene a meeting with all four corners” of the Legislature.

The result of that meeting was a house bill  and a senate version, introduced a week before the end of regular session. As written, the bills include all of the elements of Goodman’s earlier bill, but also require anyone charged with DUI to be jailed, rather than being driven home or released to a family member or friend. The bill would also create an incentive to get treatment for repeat offenders by requiring them to spend months in jail if they don’t opt to go to treatment. It also allows cities to create DUI courts. It creates a new crime out of refusing to take a breathalyzer test when pulled over. And it would make it a felony to get four or more DUIs: Currently, the fifth DUI is a felony.

Rep. Brad Klippert (R-8, Kennewick) says the effort isn’t about having the strongest DUI laws in the country, though that’s exactly what the result would be. Rather, he says, it’s about “making it much more difficult to drive drunk…. A goal of mine is to make our laws so significant that we reduce the number of DUI drivers,” he says, regardless of what other states are doing.

While the bills seem to have broad support, there are some questions among sponsors as to what will make it in the final version. Goodman, for example, says the 10-year ban on buying alcohol is untenable. And he and Klippert disagree over whether fourth-time DUI convicts should be felons: Goodman says it would necessitate building a new prison, to the tune of $200 million. He says similar benefits could be gained by emphasizing treatment and jail time.

"We are dangerously close to creating a system where rich drunk drivers simply pay to go into treatment and/or monitoring, while poor ones who are unable to do so go to jail."—ACLU lobbyist Shankar NarayanShankar Narayan, legislative director for the ACLU in Washington, says he has a number of concerns about the bills. He’s opposed to drastically increasing minimums for jail time because he says it takes away judicial discretion. He told Sen. Adam Kline (D-37, Seattle) in a letter that creating a new crime – of refusing to take a breathalyzer test – wouldn’t do anything to curb drunk driving, and would only “add a whole new layer of litigation to the mix.” He notes DUI cases are already a extensively litigated.

Narayan says some of the approaches being considered aren’t evidence-based, which is troublesome.

However, in a tradeoff for the stiffer penalties, some treatment and monitoring alterantives programs are included in the bill. “It’s fabulous – if it’s funded,” he says.

As Narayan also noted in his letter:

"As the bill stands .... fees and fines that will fall squarely on the shoulders of individuals least able to afford them. We are dangerously close to creating a system where rich drunk drivers simply pay to go into treatment and/or monitoring, while poor ones who are unable to do so go to jail."

Which brings us to the biggest question mark: Money. These proposals require cash in a time when Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate don’t seem to be in agreement on how to spend the state’s existing resources. Estimates vary wildly for how much money the bills would require for everything from new jail space to more public defenders. Goodman says the changes he prefers could cost as little as $5 million. But making it a felony to get four DUIs, for example, could require the state to build a new prison to house the 900 new felons per year, Goodman says, citing numbers from current DUI convictions.

But lawmakers may have found money for treatment via the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. Goodman says the state will get more money for treatment through the ACA in 2014, and that could be funneled directly to providing treatment for low-income citizens convicted of driving while drunk or on drugs. The second option: Alcohol taxes. Goodman says diverting some of the existing tax on booze is one option being considered.

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