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The Washington Supreme Court clarifies the felony DUI statute

Posted by Brian C. Zuanich | Jan 05, 2020 | 0 Comments

In Washington, the crime of DUI is normally a gross misdemeanor, punishable up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine. 

But if you have 3 or more DUI-related offense within the past 10 years, you can be charged with a Class B felony, which carries a maximum of 10 years in state prison.

The State, of course, has the burden of proof in any criminal case.  In a felony DUI trial, the State has to prove you guilty twice—first, that you committed DUI, and then in a second, separate trial, that you have prior DUI-related crimes.

How does the State prove that you have a prior DUI? That's what the Washington Supreme Court clarified in State v. Wu, a case decided this past month. 

A jury found Ken Wu guilty of DUI. At the second trial, the State presented documentary evidence that Wu had prior DUI-related offenses, which included two prior convictions for reckless driving. Under RCW 46.61.5055(14)(a)(xii), a conviction for reckless driving counts as a “prior offense” for felony purposes “if the conviction is the result of a charge that was originally filed” as a DUI.

To prove Wu's prior offenses, the State introduced (and the judge admitted) into evidence the following documents: (1) the criminal complaints from Wu's earlier cases showing that he was charged with DUI; and (2) the judgment and sentence forms showing that Wu plead guilty to reckless driving.

That was enough for the jury, which convicted him of felony DUI.

That was also enough for the Washington Supreme Court, which upheld Wu's conviction. 

The Court's holding is pretty simple:  to prove a “prior offense” under RCW 46.61.5055(14)(a)(xii), prosecutors have to establish that a defendant has a prior conviction for DUI, or that a defendant has a prior conviction for reckless driving or negligent driving in the first degree if the State had originally charged the defendant with DUI in these two cases.  “That is all the felony DUI statute requires,” the Court held. 

The State does not have to prove, as Wu argues, that a prior reckless driving actually involved “alcohol or drugs,” in which case prosecutors would have introduce a lot more evidence, including police reports or testimony from the police. 

In other words, the State doesn't have to prove anything about the prior cases, other than the original charge and the amended charge.  Nothing more, nothing less. 

In deciding State v. Wu, the Justices thrashed their way through conflicting Court of Appeals opinions and arrived at a much simpler application of the felony DUI statute. Whether it's a better application, however, probably depends on whether you're a prosecutor or defense attorney. 

About us:  Zuanich Law specializes in criminal and civil appeals, including DOL and family law appeals.  We also handle post-conviction relief, including vacating, expunging, and sealing criminal records.  Subscribe to our weekly criminal law email newsletter. 

About the Author

Brian C. Zuanich

I am the managing partner at Zuanich Law. I am a former prosecutor and insurance defense attorney, and have practiced law in state and federal courts for over a decade.

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