Driving under the influence (DUI) in Washington State has been a massive concern for victim’s advocates for a long time now. With widely publicized reports of wrongful death due to DUI such as the death of Washington State Parks Ranger Ed Johanson, who’s funeral was attended by hundreds of people last Saturday, calls for stiffer sentences that had been previously ignored by legislators have now been made even more urgent than they have in the past.

Ranger Johanson’s death was not the only one that helped demonstrate the importance and need for this legislation. The deaths of two teens a week before graduation on Interstate 5 in 2010 by a habitual DUI offender raised a massive cry for change. Then, the death of local game developer after a gaming conference where a drunk girl was actually driving from the passenger side of the car while the driver changed her clothing last year. And not long after that, a Google employee was killed by a driver that was three times over the legal limit of .08 and was so drunk that he beat his chest like gorilla at the scene and threatened to kill more people if he was incarcerated for the crime.

During that last example, exasperated King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg went to the media to air out some concerns he had about the current state of sentencing limits currently on the books in Washington State.

“You would think that with that degree of carnage we would take a pretty tough line on this,” Satterberg told KOMO in a interview in August. “But under the state sentencing guidelines, a person who kills another person while they are drunk driving faces a standard sentencing range of 31 to 41 months.”

The carnage he speaks of refers to the roughly 250 people killed annually by drunken drivers in Washington State. However, the multiple requests by the prosecutor, families of victims, and advocates like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Phillips Law Firm have come to fruition with the passage of House Bill 2216.

HB 2216 and DUI Sentencing

The bill, which will become law 90 days from the end of the legislative session, increases the prison sentence for a first time offenders from 31- 41 months to 6 to 8 years in prison, the same sentence an individual faces for committing first-degree manslaughter.

Most states with the exception of Alaska, Montana, and Arizona have vehicular homicide laws on the books that define vehicles as potentially deadly weapons if used improperly or irresponsibly. However, with this legislation, Washington has some of the strictest laws against someone drinking, getting into their car and killing an innocent person.

The strictness of the law piggy-backs on previous legislation that makes a person with multiple DUI offenses who kills someone with their car a federal offense. The legislation specifically states that an additional 2 years will be tacked on for every prior offense.

On Friday, Satterberg praised legislators for responding to the pleas victims’ families who were re-victimized by shockingly low sentences. He credited work of Representatives Chris Hurst and Roger Goodman in the House and David Frockt, Adam Kline and Mike Padden in the Senate.

“We have given the families of loved ones lost to drunk drivers some sense of justice,” Satterberg said in a statement. “The increased sentences will not bring back their family members but will send a strong message to drunk drivers that their actions have consequences.”

HB 2216

When it comes to killing someone with your car after you’ve been drinking, the state now recognizes it as tantamount to manslaughter one or child rape, in terms of sentencing. Not the prettiest category to be in when it comes to being viewed in the eyes of the law. However, the way the statute reads it’s pretty explicit.

(1) When the death of any person ensues within three years as a proximate result of injury proximately caused by the driving of any vehicle by any person, the driver is guilty of vehicular homicide if the driver was operating a motor vehicle:

  • (a) While under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug, as defined by RCW 46.61.502; or
  • (b) In a reckless manner; or
  • (c) With disregard for the safety of others.

(2) Vehicular homicide is a class A felony punishable under chapter 9A.20 RCW, except that, for a conviction under subsection (1)(a) of this section, an additional two years shall be added to the sentence for each prior offense as defined in RCW 46.61.5055.

As you can see this law doesn’t stop at just DUI. Reckless driving is may be included, which is defined in RCW 46.61.500 as:

(1) Any person who drives any vehicle in willful or wanton disregard for the safety of persons or property is guilty of reckless driving.

So, this could be extended to drivers who are driving with the intent to injure or harass another driver such as in a road rage scenario or racing down the freeway with another car down a crowded freeway.

Will Stiffer Sentences for DUI Lower Wrongful Death in Washington State?

This is the operative question. Washington State has been enjoying an unprecedented era of safety. Not since the 40’s has the state had so few deaths as in 2011. Does this directly correlate to DUI laws? Well, not specifically. Many experts attribute this to the fact that car are so much safer than cars even 20 years ago, that it is no wonder highway deaths are down even in the states with the lightest traffic laws.

You see, not ALL deaths are caused by DUI, only about a third of them are. However, that is an incredible impact. Governor Gregoire instituted the Target Zero program, which is intended to reach zero vehicular deaths of all kinds by 2030. A tall order, but if this law and the proper campaign showing the consequences has as impact as many hope, then this will go a long way to ending DUI deaths in Washington State.

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