Washington's New 24/7 Sobriety Program Runs Into Snags

Mar 20, 2014

It’s been nearly a year since a repeat drunk driver caused a horrific accident in north Seattle.

A new mother, her 10-day old baby and her in-laws were run down as they crossed the street. The grandparents were killed, the mother and baby critically injured. That tragedy and other high profile drunk driving crashes prompted Washington lawmakers to authorize a pilot program to test repeat drunk drivers twice-a-day to see if they’ve been drinking. But that 24/7 Sobriety program has run into legal and financial snags and now two of the pilot agencies have dropped out.

Commander Jim Rich of the Centralia Police Department displays the breath test machine used for the 24/7 Sobriety pilot program.
Credit Austin Jenkins

So far, the 24/7 Sobriety program is up and running in just one small city in southwest Washington: Centralia.

Police Commander Jim Rich sits in his office and opens up a black plastic case. Inside is an Intoximeter Alco-Sensor FST. That’s a fancy name for a breath test machine. He inserts a clear plastic straw into the yellow hand-held device and, at my suggestion, lets me try it.

“Put your mouth on the end of the tube and blow strong and steady until I tell you to stop or you hear a click. And your results are zero,” said Rich.

This is what repeat drunk drivers arrested in Centralia will do two times a day, seven days a week if a judge puts them on the 24/7 Sobriety program. Each test will cost the offender $2. Commander Rich sees this as a way to hold problem drinkers accountable.

“For the first time in my 30-year career there’s something other than just looking for impaired drivers that are already on the street,” said Rich.

Washington joins North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana to become the fourth state to embrace the 24/7 Sobriety concept. The RAND Corporation studied South Dakota’s program and found that it led to a reduction in arrests for repeat DUIs.

But the rollout of the pilot project in Washington has run into problems. One key concern is whether it’s constitutional for a judge to order an accused drunk driver into the program before their trial as a condition of bail. Brian Burnett is the sheriff in Chelan County – one of the original five pilot participants.

“We did have information that defense attorneys would be quick to file an appeal from the very get-go here in our area so knowing that it was going to be very costly and time consuming to the prosecutor’s office,” said Burnett.

That was one reason Chelan County withdrew from the pilot program. The legal concern might be well-founded. Last month, a judge in Montana found that state’s 24/7 program is unconstitutional because it amounts to punishment prior to trial. Montana’s Attorney General is now appealing.

“We’ll have to see what happens in Montana and if there’s a challenge here,” said Republican state Senator Mike Padden.

Padden is a former judge and was the prime sponsor of the legislation to create Washington’s program. Ultimately he views the 24/7 program as a post-conviction tool.

“I don’t think we should lose focus that the primary aim was really people that have already been convicted,” said Padden.

Another dropout from the program is the city of Kent. It had made a decision early on not to use 24/7 before a conviction. Even so, the city’s two judges concluded the program has other “major problems” that could end up costing, not saving, the city money.

One specific concern: the judges believe 24/7 Sobriety misses the growing problem of drugged drivers.

Bruce Bjork is administering the pilot project for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. He says losing Kent and Chelan County leaves just three participants.

I asked, “and when you got those calls from the sheriff or the police chief?”

“Disappointing,” responded Bjork.

Bjork says the whole purpose of a pilot program is to work out the kinks. He says Thurston and Spokane counties will be up and running soon. He’s trying to recruit other jurisdictions to replace the two he lost. The legislature’s intent is to take this program statewide by 2017.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News