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DUI court packed with offenders and repeat offenders

New Mexico Department of Public Safety

Sit in a courtroom where people are being arraigned on charges of driving under the influence, and you get an idea of the obstacles Washington lawmakers face in trying to pass tougher drunk driving laws.

I recently spent an eye-opening afternoon in Judge Mark Eide's courtroom in King County District Court in Burien.The sheer volume was the first thing I noticed. The courtroom was standing room only. Between 2 p.m. and closing time at 4:30 p.m., more than 70 DUI arraignments were processed. Judge Eide said the workload was pretty typical for a Wednesday, when the court traditionally handles DUI arraignments for the week.

As for who you see in court on DUI Wednesday, there are women in business suits and young guys in baggy jeans. Some have private attorneys, others need public defenders. Some are here on their first offense, others on their second or third. But in every instance, Judge Eide says, the arraignment is happening a long time after the drunk driving incident.

“They happened a month or 2, or 5 months ago. And they’re just now getting filed in court,” Eide said.

He says it's evidence of an understaffed and overworked justice system. Meanwhile, the people who were stopped for allegedly driving drunk have been out driving, maybe even continuing to drive drunk, while waiting for charges to be filed.

At arraignment, everyone pleads not guilty and, one after another, the judge hands out the same conditions of release. He tells them not to consume alcohol or drugs or drive without a valid license. In some cases, he requires that an interlock device be installed on the their car. I asked the judge how he makes sure they comply.

"I don’t have anyway to enforce that, unless I find out about it. I don’t have a police officer that runs around enforcing conditions of release," he said.

Eide says it isn't as simple as just putting people in jail who are being arraigned on their third drunk driving charge.

"Under the court rules and under the state and federal constitution, you can't just lock somebody up because they're accused of doing something bad, particularly when they’ve been out and about for several months," Eide said.

Eide says the state could change how it deals with DUI, much the way it did with domestic violence. Over a decade ago, someone accused of spousal abuse was taken away to cool off, then allowed to go back home. Now, the law requires people suspected of domestic violence be arrested and charged almost immediately.

But, he cautions, the number of drunk driving cases far exceeds the number of domestic violence cases.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.