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

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, and the mother and her baby were 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 have been drinking.

But the 24/7 Sobriety program has run into legal and financial snags.

A Small Pilot Program

So far, the program is up and running in just one small city: Centralia, Washington.

When repeat drunk drivers there are arrested and a judge puts them on the 24/7 Sobriety program, they will take a breath test two times a day, seven days a week. Each test will cost the offender $2.

The test works like this. A clear plastic straw is inserted into a hand-held breath test machine called an Intoximeter Alco-Sensor FST. The individual being tested puts his or her mouth on the end of the tube and blows strong and steady until the machine makes a click sound.

Centralia Police Commander Jim 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,” he said.

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.

Constitutionality And Costs

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.

“We did have information that defense attorneys would be quick to file an appeal from the very get-go here in our area," said Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett, one of the original five pilot participants. "So knowing that, it was going to be very costly and time consuming to the prosecutor’s office.”

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 Sen. Mike Padden, a former judge and 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 of Spokane Valley.

Working Out The Kinks

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, manager of the pilot project for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, says losing Kent and Chelan County leaves just three participants.

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. And 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.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.