An Exception to Washington State’s DUI "Mandatory Jail"

DUI convictions require judges to impose mandatory minimum sentences. This is true whether the DUI occurred in Seattle, Redmond, Bellevue, or anywhere else in Washington State. Mandatory minimum sentences for a Washington State drunk driving conviction involve mandatory minimum jail time. The mandatory minimum jail time depends upon the number of “prior offenses” and the level of the breath test or whether the defendant refused the breath test. A “prior offense” is a term of art and is defined in RCW 46.61.5055(12). Other drunk driving sentencing provisions are found in RCW 46.61.5055(1), (2) and (3).Depending upon these factors a citizen convicted of DUI in Washington State is facing a mandatory minimum sentence ranging from one day to one hundred and twenty days in jail.

For a first offense the mandatory minimum jail time, one to two days in jail can be converted to fifteen or thirty days of electronic home monitoring. If there is a “prior offense” then the mandatory minimum jail time will be followed by a period of electronic home monitoring ranging from sixty days to one hundred and fifty days. No matter how you look at it the penalties for a DUI conviction in Washington State are severe. In fact, many DUI defendants spend more time in jail then convicted felons. Thus, a person convicted of misdemeanor drunk driving in the city of Seattle, for instance, can face tougher jail and fines than a person convicted of a felony in the same jurisdiction.

Can the mandatory minimum jail time and electronic home monitoring be avoided? Possibly. Under the right circumstances a person will not have to spend a single night in jail, but the right facts must exist and these facts must be effectively presented to a judge. Usually, this requires the services of an experienced DUI defense attorney. Washington DUI law, in RCW sections 46.61.5055(1)(a)(i), (1)(b)(i), (2)(a)(i), (2)(b)(i), (3)(a)(i) and (3)(b)(i) contains language that may allow one to avoid all mandatory minimum jail time. These sections of RCW 46.61.5055 allow the court to suspend or defer the imprisonment and or electronic home monitoring if it can be established that the imprisonment and or electronic home monitoring “would impose a substantial risk to the offender’s physical or mental well-being.” How is this done? There is no definitive answer to this question. The statute does not define “substantial risk to the offender’s physical or mental well-being” and there is no case law addressing this issue. This means that the judge will have a great deal of discretion when deciding this issue. As a practical matter you may be saying to yourself, “I don’t care what the statute says no judge will defer or suspend these minimums no matter what.”

All I can say in response is that Judges can do it and will do it if you have the right facts. I know this because it I have successfully made this argument for a client. Any attempt to use the language contained in RCW 46.61.5055 means being prepared to present compelling evidence. In my client’s case we were able to produce evidence of significant mental health issues. These mental health issues included bipolar disorder, ADHD, anxiety and depression. In addition, my client has a history of suicide attempts. These mental health issues were documented for several years and my client retained an expert, in this case a psychiatrist, to conduct a mental health evaluation. The psychiatrist concluded that incarceration would impose a substantial risk to her mental well-being and he documented this in a ten page report.

This case was successfully presented to the sentencing judge due to meticulous preparation of the case and effective advocacy at sentencing. I represented this individual and presented the evidence despite the fact that other parts of the DUI laws use the words “mandatory sentence.” That individual was looking at a mandatory minimum of 120 days in jail and 150 days of electronic home monitoring for the crime of drunk driving. My client did not serve one day in jail, she is doing very well on electronic home monitoring and she is receiving the mental health treatment she needs. Certainly it is not often that these statutes will apply to avoid actual jail time when one is sentenced for drunk driving. Our goal is to obtain the best result we can for our client through effective representation and full knowledge of all of Washington State’s drunk driving laws and the practices of local jurisdictions from Bellingham to Spokane to Seattle and all jurisdictions in between.