Will this be the year for tougher DUI laws?

Will this be the year the state Legislature toughens DUI laws? (Photo: KOMO News)

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Emotional testimony came Monday as a state Senate bill to toughen the drunken-driving laws moved closer to final passage.

But the measure's fate in the state House is still unknown. It has gotten to this stage before with strong support in the Senate, but no floor action in the House.

Senate Bill 5037 would make a fourth DUI in 10 years a felony. Right now it's five in 10 years.

Victims' families came long distances to testify in favor and share their stories. "I got the call that no parent should ever endure," said Kathy Kester. She relived that day three years ago when she learned her son Clayton was in a serious crash. He was hit by a drunken driver. "And I screamed. I was frantic. I cried and I prayed." Clayton didn't survive. Instead of attending his high school graduation, his family was planning his funeral.

If her story sounds familiar, it's because she gave the same emotional testimony just a few weeks ago in the state Senate. On Jan. 19th Kester testified, "He didn't deserve this. A great part of me died with Clayton."

Her story and others worked in the Senate, which has passed this bill six times unanimously. But each time it reached the House it stalled.

Karen Bartlett lost Russ, her husband of 50 years, to a drunken driver. Her frustration is boiling over. "Our whole world was shattered that day, and I just think that it's up to you as our representatives to get with it and get this bill passed. Because we've been here five times."

The families actually would like a stronger bill making it a felony on the third DUI just like Idaho and Oregon. Dale Panattoni, Russ Bartlett's son-in-law, said, "We need to take this crime more seriously. Once is a mistake, twice is a pattern and the third time should be a felony."

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, the bill's sponsor, hopes this year is the year it'll pass the House. "We're never going to give up. I hope this will be the yea,r and we can make it across the finish line as the chairman indicated.."

If not, the families say they'll come back next session. Kester said after the hearing, "You just relive the pain again and again, but if it makes a difference, that's what I will do."

And for these families it's no small gesture to come testify. They are all coming from Eastern Washington to make their case at the state Legislature.

The holdup in making the measure law has been the millions of dollars needed to keep more people locked up in prison.

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