Washington State's DWI Follies


The state of Washington has tried to position itself as one of the most aggressively anti-DWI jurisdictions in the country. A couple of years ago, the legislature passed a laughably absurd law instructing juries to consider evidence in drunk driving cases "in a light most favorable to the prosecution." The law passed, but was promptly nullified in its first court challenge. The state also has a law mandating the installation of ignition interlock devices in the vehicle of anyone arrested—not convicted, merely arrested—for drunk driving.

Which makes a couple of headlines this week rather interesting. In the first, the manager of the state's toxicology lab has admitted she signed false statements about having tested the state's breath test machines for accuracy. The statements go back seven years, and could affect hundreds of cases.

The second story is a three-part investigation by Seattle's Post Intelligencer which found that police officers caught driving drunk are frequently let off by fellow officers who pull them over, rarely receive criminal sanctions when they are arrested, and generally get off with light disciplinary action. There also seems to be quite a bit of administrative incompetence in cases where cops have been implicated for DWI—lots of mishandled evidence and missed filing deadlines. In some cases, the lab manager mentioned in the prior story would tell prosecutors that there were too many problems with evidence collection to charge a cop with driving while impaired.

In one case, a cop who crashed his patrol car after drinking at a holiday party was met at the police station by a prosecutor who'd been at the same party. The prosecutor attempted to act as the officer's defense attorney, despite the fact that he worked for the office that would be investigating the accident for possible charges. That officer was eventually suspended, and ordered to sign a "last chance" agreement requiring his termination for any alcohol-related infractions. He still works for the police department, despite three subsequent alcohol-related citations.

What's more, the paper found that the Seattle police department was stingy when handing over case reports, even in cases where drunk cops were drinking on duty, or caused injuries to other motorists. Even when the department did finally turn over the case reports, they redacted the names of the officers.

Related: In a story loaded with misinformation and MADD propaganda, Time reports on a recent study indicating that immediate license revocation at the time of a DWI arrest may reduce drunk driving accidents by five percent. I don't doubt the statistics. But it's always interesting to see a major media outlet advocating we preemptively punish people before they've been convicted of any crime.

(Thanks to James Powderly for the tip on the Time story.)