Out of court

Wednesday, April 17, 2013


     This motto of TV news can often drive the criminal justice system.  Seattle recently has had several horrific DUI (alleged) accidents in which innocent people were killed.  Within just a few weeks, our new Governor and the Legislature--a bipartisan group, no less--are proposing stiffer new penalties and restrictions for driving under the influence.  Obviously they are reacting to the news.  Nothing unites liberal and conservative politicians more than an easy target which has no constituency.  Well, maybe the restaurant/bar and liquor lobby...but they won't object as long as it doesn't dent their wallets.  The Legislature will have to hurry, as the regular session expires on April 28.  That does not bode well for a thoughtful new law.

     So the easiest political solution is to increase the penalties--more jail, which is what is proposed for second and third DUI's.  A second DUI will have a 6 month mandatory sentence or time on a transdermal device.  This device is an ankle bracelet that measures the alcohol exuded in one's sweat and then electronically sends a signal to the supervising company.  Sentinel Offender Services is the company Seattle Municipal Court uses.  These devices cost the defendant about $11 per day, which for a six month period would cost nearly $2000.  Now most arrestees do not have that kind of  scratch at hand, so either a city or county will pay (doubtful) or jail will be the only alternative--also a taxpayer expense. 

     This expense is over and above the mandatory fines and assessments which for a second offender are around $1,500, not to mention the high risk insurance, the ignition interlock device ($70-100 per month) and the cost of alcohol treatment.  All but the well off DUI offender will be in debt for a second offense.  For a third DUI, the mandatory time of a year is the proposed penalty, which also is the maximum penalty.  This means there will be no incentive to plead and more trials (expense) will ensue.

     The proposal for first offenders is a criminal filing within 48 hours and no release of the offending vehicle until an ignition interlock device is installed.  With 38,000 new DUI arrests in Washington each year, this poses a challenge to financially strapped city and county prosecutors.  Even Seattle Municipal court which files much faster than King County normally does not file within 48 hours.  As of 2013, in King County, which files the most DUI's of any jurisdiction in the state, there is about a 60 day lag between routine DUI arrests and the first appearance in court.   Shortening this time up will take a few more deputies at a minimum.  If booking in the jail is required after every DUI arrest, the cost to the counties and the prosecutor's offices may not be within their current budgets. 

     As for the imposition of interlock devices before release of the vehicle, there is a due process problem.  Without time for a court or administrative body to provide a meaningful hearing on whether the arrest and/or seizure of the vehicle is legal, it may not withstand a constitutional challenge.  More significant is the right of an innocent owner of the vehicle, such a spouse or a parent.  Will they be deprived of a ride to work or school for the sins of another?

     Finally, the most radical proposal is the ten year ban on alcohol for third timers.  This prohibition would be enforced by creating a special driver’s license and requiring bars, restaurants and liquor stores to card everybody, regardless of age.  Here is where the restaurant/bar and liquor lobby may object. For they would become drink cops making sure everyone at the table is allowed to drink!  What if the prohibited husband is caught taking a taste of his wife's wine?  Will he be booted from the restaurant?  And will she go down as an accomplice?

     Will any of this work?  Will this decrease alcohol related accidents--the ultimate purpose of all this lawmaking?  Isn't our drive and drink culture at the root of this?  For starters we know that these new laws will cost the taxpayers more money.  One proposal is to re-up the beer tax.  Maybe Tim Eyman will propose an initiative to block that--wrecking more havoc on government programs and budgets. 

     As long as suburban restaurants (their prime profit maker) and country taverns serve alcohol, people will drink and drive.  In big cities, there are more taxis and public transit to turn to, but people still like the freedom of driving.  So I am skeptical that the proposed draconian penalties will quickly reduce alcohol related accident rate, as long as some drinking and driving are legal--which is the case.  How about a designated driver custom?  Every person or group at a bar, restaurant or tavern must have a designated driver, whether a taxi, bus or person in their party before alcohol can be served?  What would the  restaurant/bar and liquor lobby think of that?

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