Washington Keeps Getting Stricter on DUI But Does It Help?

When someone is studying DUI laws in Washington there is a term that will come up and that is “escalating penalties”. What is usually also being discussed is whether the escalating penalties have been effective in curbing repeat offenses or DUI related fatalities. The phrase is actually used and discussed within two contexts so it can get a little confusing.

The first context you may have discovered if you have needed to deal with a second or greater DUI arrest. The more DUI’s that you get the penalties that you face increase. If you are facing a 5th or higher DUI charge the crime is then classified as a felony which would mean prison time if you were convicted. This is what is often meant by “escalating penalties”.

What can also be meant is the history of DUI law in the first place. This context of the term “escalating penalties” can also affect first time offenders.

So here is a little tour of the way Washington has viewed and dealt with drunk driving. According to one Seattle police officer who was still on the force in the early 2000s it was viewed more or less as a joke prior to the 1980s. In fact some of the citizenry, including some other police officers, petitioned to get him put on a different shift or beat or duty because he was making “too many drunk driving arrests”. Is it possible that he had personal reasons for a more than usual bias against drunk driving and that he was going overboard with the arrests? Of course it is – after all police are people just like anyone else. Since the petition was denied it seems more likely that this reveals a then societal ambivalence towards drunk driving. Well that certainly is no longer the way anyone would describe the majority of popular and legal consensus in Washington today.

What changed is that in the 1980’s there were special interest groups, such as MADD, starting to devote themselves to this issue. What they sought to do was put a face to the victims and fatalities that drunk driving causes. They succeeded and created a shift in the majority of societal thinking. Drunk driving was no longer seen as a joke; it was seen as a danger. Well, who was going to stop it? One option would have been to leave it to personal responsibility. Well, even though Washington remained one of the more lenient states as far as the law was concerned for years the number of DUI related fatalities did go down a bit. This can be attributed to responsible people being made aware of the consequences of their actions but the numbers also showed that it was still a problem so stricter laws were requested.

So by 2013 Washington was considered one of the stricter states and had initiated the BAC limit of .08 even before it became the federal standard. There were more changes that year such as: police able to make an arrest without a warrant, ignition interlock devices were required for even first time offenders and the penalties were increased especially for repeat offenders. A year later the discussion was about washout time for DUIs increasing from seven to ten years. What is currently being discussed is lowering the legal BAC limit to .05 and making DUI a felony after four (or even three) offenses. Over time it has become easier to become arrested and the penalties have been steadily increasing.

Has this worked to curb DUI or recidivism or fatalities or both or neither? There does not seem to be a noticeable drop in DUI arrests but there has been a drop in second time offenders so the stiffer first time penalties do seem to maybe have been partially successful. The percentage of third time or more offenders has not changed. What this would seem to indicate is that the law can penalize people but it cannot change them.

What about fatalities? Well, in the last ten years the number of DUI related fatalities has gone down. So that might indicate a success story. But that is not the whole story. ALL vehicle related fatalities have gone down. Many factors probably go into this such as cars built with more safety features and better roads. The percentage of those fatalities being DUI related is the same as it was before the numbers on all fatalities came down.

It does not look like an entire success. Nor does it look like a complete failure. But one thing these escalated penalties make certain is if you get arrested for DUI you will want a Pierce County / Tacoma defense attorney. Call or E-mail the law office of Smith & White, PLLC – your free case analysis awaits you.

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