DUI crash victims' families support tougher state sentencing legislation

Every 48 minutes someone in the United States is killed by a drunken driver. In the state of Washington, 170 people lost their lives in 2010.

Under current state law, those convicted face minimal time behind bars, but that could soon change.

Prosecutors in Pierce and King counties are teaming up with state legislators to try to increase prison time for drunken drivers who kill.  Under House Bill 2216, the sentencing range for vehicular homicide would more than double to a maximum of nine years in prison, the same as for first-degree manslaughter.

At a news conference Wednesday, family members of victims spoke in support of the legislation.

“My children are suffering. They spent the holidays wishing for the one gift they couldn’t have and that was to have the most wonderful father back in our lives,” said Nabila Lacey, whose husband, Steve, was killed by an accused drunken driver in Kirkland in July.

Patrick Rexroat, the man charged with killing the 43-year-old husband and father, faces a maximum of three and a half years behind bars, if convicted.

“As prosecutors, one of the most difficult things we have to do is explain to the families of victims why a sentence doesn’t feel like justice. Our current sentences feel like a slap on the wrist,” Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist said.

This isn't the first time legislators have attempted to do this. Last year, a similar bill stalled because of concerns over how much it would cost the state. Despite being in the midst of a state budget crisis, Rep. Christopher Hurst, D-Enumclaw, is ready to make his case.

“I know times are tough and there are going to be questions about that, but the time has come that we start having an appropriate sentence for someone who chooses to drink and takes someone’s life.  The issue of highway safety and justice for families who have had a family member killed must transcend momentary budget difficulties,” Hurst said.

Families like Mary Bobbitt's, whose son, Nick Hodgins, and friend Derek King were killed by a drunken driver a year and a half ago.

“I spent Christmas visiting my son at the cemetery and bringing his Christmas tree there. That's what I can look forward to for the rest of my life. The punishment is just not there. The laws need to change,” Bobbitt said.

Hurst doesn't expect the state to face any cost from HB 2216 for several years down the road and hopes by then the economy will improve. He plans to introduce his bill after the first of the year.