Stiffer Penalties for Vehicular Homicide

Current penalties for drivers who kill — due to alcohol or drug impairment, reckless driving, or driving with disregard for the safety of others — aren’t sufficient given that the loss of life is both predictable and preventable, said King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg.

He noted that with time off for good behavior, most defendants convicted of vehicular homicide see their prison sentences reduced by a third.

At a Wednesday news conference to announce proposed changes to state law that would increase the punishments for vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, Satterberg was joined by Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Lindquist; state Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw; Nabila Lacey; and other families who’ve lost loved ones to drunken and impaired drivers.

The public officials and grieving relatives timed their announcement to precede New Year’s Eve, which Satterberg called “an alcohol-themed holiday.”

Noting that 170 people were killed by impaired drivers in 2010, compared with 154 slaying victims, Satterberg said: “We know by Monday, more Washington state residents will join that statistic.”

Hurst, a retired police officer and the chairman of the House public-safety and emergency-preparedness committee, is sponsoring legislation in the upcoming legislative session that would make the punishment for driving drunk and killing someone equal to the punishment for manslaughter.

Under the proposed law, those convicted of vehicular homicide while driving under the influence would face prison terms of 6 to 8 ½ years, more than double the current penalties of 2 ½ to almost 3 ½ years.

He recalled rolling up on his first fatal DUI crash as a young patrol officer in Ravensdale in 1981. A woman, her daughter, and her sister were killed by a drunken driver. The woman’s husband, worried because his wife and daughter were late returning home, came across the crash scene before police arrived.

“I will never forget the screams, the terror, the trauma, of this father who came across his wife and daughter in that car,” said Hurst.

He said at the time that local politicians and community leaders warned that Hurst would end up dead in a ditch if he continued going after drunken drivers.

Busting drunks “was not popular in 1981,” and while laws and attitudes have undergone a sea change, Hurst said, stiffer penalties represent “one of the last chapters in something that started several decades ago.”

“A couple years in jail is not appropriate for the devastation that you cause,” Hurst said.

Lindquist, who hopes the tougher penalties will serve as a deterrent, said the toughest thing prosecutors have to do “is explain to a family why a sentence doesn’t feel like justice. … It feels like a slap on the wrist.”

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