Well it's (un)official: the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office is no longer negotiating DUI cases. I say “(un)official” because the Office has not, of course, and will not actually go public with this fact. I say “fact” because it is a fact. Every single DUI defense attorney I've spoken to over the past few months has confirmed what I've long suspected: get a DUI in King County, even a first offense, and you're either looking at pleading guilty (where they may offer to recommend “only” the mandatory minimum penalties), or pushing your case to motions and / or trial.
My DUI attorney colleagues and I are dumbstruck by this, and finding it necessary to set nearly all our King County DUI cases for trial, while those less knowledgeable in DUI law or (unfortunately) less dedicated are simply advising their clients to plead as charged.
So get a DUI in Washington, and plead guilty or go to trial?
Fortunately most other counties and municipalities within King County are more reasonable – at least for now. In King County District Court, however, it appears to be the rule. Are there any exceptions? Yes, but they are few and far between, and only available if it suits the State as much or more than the defense. My King County prosecutor friends would remind me that they recently “offered” a client of mine a reduction from DUI to Negligent Driving. That was for a client with an alleged blood alcohol content (BAC) nearly half the legal limit (after taking confidence intervals into account). It should have been charged as Negligent Driving to begin with.
Treating everyone charged with DUI the same is not justice.
As a Washington DUI attorney I am disheartened with this prophylactic “one size fits all” approach, which I believe is simply unjust. Prosecutors are supposed to “seek justice,” which is something other than a “one size fits all” approach that treats a person charged for the first time with DUI, with a .085 BAC, the same as someone who blew just under .15 who has a prior DUI charge from 2004. What's more, in most cases, a client who exercises her right go to trial on a first offense, and is found guilty, will almost certainly receive the same sentence as she would if she accepted the prosecutor's “offer.” So there's really nothing to gain by simply surrendering to the prosecution.
So why not just go to trial?
Well, for starters, there's often an additional trial fee involved. There's also the additional inconvenience and loss of work time in returning to court again and again for trial, only to find out that there aren't enough courtrooms to handle all the DUI trials that are set for that month. Why? Because the prosecutor's office simply won't make any deals.
Imagine you're charged with a DUI, you've had a few pretrial hearings, you've argued motions and are now set for trial. You appear for trial – case continued. You come back a month later – case continued. Step and repeat. You're missing work, and starting to have difficulty explaining why to your boss. Perhaps he knows, and has been patient - so far. That patience will likely wear thin at some point.
Where's the justice? Check back with me in November.
When I was a DUI prosecutor I didn't shy away from trial, but I certainly didn't look forward to a weekend spent prepping for twenty DUI trials the next week, not knowing which one or two might actually go to trial. I feel for my prosecutor counterparts on the other side of the aisle – I know this is being foisted on them from above. It's an election year, after all, and Dan Satterberg is facing his first re-election bid, which many believe may draw a formidable opponent. (In which case, I don't foresee plea negotiations with Seattle City Attorney's Office over the next eight months getting a whole lot easier. Seattle Municipal Court? Don't get me started on that place.) Dan Satterberg isn't taking any chances on being seen as “soft on crime,” especially not for DUI – which saw its highest-profile media year ever in 2013.
So what can be done?
If you face this situation (first offense DUI, under .15) and your attorney is advising you to take your case to trial – and you can stomach the burden that comes with it – don't surrender. (It is not for me to give legal advice to anyone other than my own clients; always listen to your attorney.) If there's a trial fee involved, see if he or she will work with you. I understand there are already tremendous costs involved in the process – classes, insurance, Ignition Interlock Devices (imposed far more often now than a few years ago). I generally charge a trial fee but I'm willing to be flexible, especially with my first time DUI clients. I don't want any of them surrendering to the State solely because of the trial fee.
The more we and our clients take a stand, particularly on behalf of our first time DUI clients, the more pressure it will put on the prosecutor's office to be fair. Judges tend to favor negotiation; the King County bench appears to be getting frustrated with the logjam and they know who's causing it. If the DUI defense bar and their clients stand up for what's just, I believe the prosecution will be forced to let up. Otherwise their foot soldiers will burn out, there will be turnover, and I believe the judges may even start finding reasons to grant dismissals where they are justified.
If you want justice, sometimes you have to fight for it. If you are charged for the first time with a DUI in King County, or anywhere else in Washington state, it's more important than ever that you obtain competent, aggressive legal counsel with an emphasis on DUI. Make sure that attorney is not afraid to take a case to trial - even a case that may appear on the outside to have little hope - rather than settle for "mandatory minimums."