State lawmakers, governor meet on tougher DUI legislation

SEATTLE -- A hard push to stop drunken driving took place during a high-level meeting Thursday between top lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee in Olympia, just hours after the man charged in a fatal Seattle accident made an appearance in court.

Prosecutors contend suspect Mark Mullan drove his pickup truck under the influence on March 25 and killed a married couple and critically injured their daughter-in-law and infant grandson in the Wedgwood neighborhood in northeast Seattle.

Mullan pleaded not guilty to the charges Thursday. But if convicted, he could spend nearly two decades in prison.

"It is manslaughter …  it is recklessly engaging in behavior that you know, or should know, could kill somebody,” King County deputy prosecutor Amy Freedheim said outside the courtroom.

Prosecutors say Mullan's blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit when his pickup struck the four pedestrians crossing the street.

Dennis and Judy Shulte were killed instantly. Their daughter-in-law and her newborn son remain in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center.

"If we learn anything from this tragedy, it is that choices we make daily affect the people around us. Every person must have accountability and be responsible to fellow citizens,” said Judy Schulte’s sister, Ruth Dwyer.

Accountability and responsibility were the focus of a closed-door meeting in Olympia between state lawmakers and the governor. They are looking to toughen the state's DUI laws, including reducing the number of DUIs it takes (from five to three) for a felony charge and also speeding up the judicial process.

"There is this very dangerous window between the arrest (of a DUI suspect) and the final disposition of the case when there’s no (ignition interlock) device on the car and no accountability, so we want to close that window and make the roads safer that way. That is one of the most important provisions,” said state Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.

Earlier Thursday, members of the House Law and Justice Committee heard ideas from judges, police and prosecutors.

Some called for tougher rules on interlock devices that prevent vehicles from being started by those who have consumed alcohol. Others want police sobriety checkpoints occasionally set up in Washington.

"I know that's a controversial issue, but the one thing with that is the 39 other states that implemented those (sobriety checkpoints) have seen between a 20 and 25 percent reduction in fatal collisions involving an impaired driver,” Traffic Safety Commission member Darrin Grondel said.

A bill to impose longer sentences for repeat offenders was already passed last year. One of the supporters of that legislation was Freedheim, who is now prosecuting Mullan.

"It is the most preventable crime, there is no excuse, there is no excuse for driving impaired,” Freedheim said.

"Since these tragedies, we are moved now -- spurred into action -- to get important DUI legislation passed this year,” Goodman said.

He added that the third-time felony provision might be a tough sell because it would likely require building a new state prison at a cost of about $200 million.

He also wants to give more money to the Washington State Patrol for enforcement, more money for prosecutors to bring cases more quickly, and more money for treatment – all a tough sell in tight budget times.