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Driving drunk: Is the law too lax in Washington state? | SPECIAL REPORT

Derek King and Nicholas Hodgins died as a result of injuries after a suspected drunken driver rear-ended their Honda Civic in a June 9 collision on I-5. The Civic’s third occupant, Anthony Beaver, survived. - Photo courtesy of KOMO News
Derek King and Nicholas Hodgins died as a result of injuries after a suspected drunken driver rear-ended their Honda Civic in a June 9 collision on I-5. The Civic’s third occupant, Anthony Beaver, survived.
— image credit: Photo courtesy of KOMO News

After last week's suspected drunken driving accident that killed two Federal Way teens, the question remains: Why was 50-year-old Alexander Peder behind the wheel of a car?

Peder, a Kirkland resident who had two DUI incidents in the past, crashed into a Honda Civic occupied by Derek King, Nicholas Hodgins and Anthony Beaver on June 9. Peder was charged Monday with two counts of vehicular homicide in the death of King and Hodgins.

Peder's driver's license had been suspended, but was reinstated after he followed through with court orders.

"Both times he did what the court ordered him to do," King County Prosecuting Attorney's office spokesman Ian Goodhew said.

The fatal crash

King, Hodgins and Beaver were Decatur High School students who were just three days away from graduation. They were returning home after an evening spent with classmates. The three were traveling southbound in Interstate 5, when just past Tukwila near State Route 518, their car became disabled in the second lane of the freeway.

Beaver, the driver, turned on the emergency flashers and called for the state patrol on his phone. At least two cars were able to see and avoid the disabled Civic. Peder, who is suspected of driving drunk, crashed into the rear end of the Civic, destroying the rear half of the car.

King died at the scene. Hodgins died after being taken off life support the next day.

Peder had purchased a fifth of vodka six hours earlier, as well as a pint and a smaller bottle of tequila. State Patrol found receipts for the alcohol in Peder's 1998 Ford Explorer, as well as the bottle of vodka, half-empty.

Peder's blood-alcohol content was taken at the scene, less than an hour after the crash, and came back at .16 BAC, which is twice the legal limit.

A past history of DUI

Peder had twice before been arrested for driving under the influence. The first time was in 1998, but the charge was reduced to negligent driving. The district court deferred the sentence and dismissed the charge after Peder completed a DUI victims panel and an alcohol evaluation. According to Goodhew, in that case, the judge threw out Peder's breathalyzer results, and the prosecutors pleaded down the charge to a lesser charge that would still go on his record.

Peder got his second DUI arrest in 2008, which was amended to reckless endangerment. Peder was given a two-year suspended sentence.

Again, this was a case where Peder's breathalyzer was thrown out, Goodhew said. This time it was due to the Ahmach decision, a 2007 decision by a panel of judges that dismissed all breathalyzer tests after finding fault with the Washington State Patrol crime lab. Currently prosecutors cannot use breathalyzers in their court cases, Goodhew said.

Goodhew said prosecutors plan on bringing the issue back to the panel in August to allow breathalyzers, the prosecution's most important piece of evidence, back into play.

Without that evidence, prosecutors are hard pressed to get a DUI conviction, which is why Peder was able to plead down, Goodhew said.

"That's why we (pleaded down)," Goodhew said. "Reckless endangerment would still count if he did something horrible, we want at least some type of conviction on his record."

When he crashed into Beaver's car, Peder was still on active suspension for his last DUI.

If convicted on the two counts of vehicular assault, King County prosecutors say he could receive 5 to 7 years in jail.

That is actually on the high end of the sentence, Goodhew said, as one count is 2 to 3 years. By being able to stack the counts, plus adding two years for his past, the prosecutors can bring the sentence up to 5 to 7 years.

Prosecutors are still looking at filing charges for vehicular assault against Peder for what happened to Beaver, Goodhew said. However, first they need to look at any possible long-term damage, which could lengthen the sentence for Peder if convicted, Goodhew said.

Washington state's DUI laws

In Washington state, a person convicted of a DUI will never face more than a year in prison, according to state law (RCW 46.61.5055). For repeat offenders who have been caught at least twice before, the maximum sentence is a year in jail and up to 150 days of electronic home monitoring. The maximum fine for a DUI is set at $5,000, although depending on the amount of times the defendant has been caught, the fine could be as low as $865.

First time offenders face a minimum of a one-day jail sentence and 15 days at home on electronic monitoring.

Licenses can be taken away; however, driving with a suspended license is still a common occurrence. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), 50 to 75 percent of drunken drivers whose licenses are suspended continue to drive.

Is the law strict enough?

According to the Washington State Sentencing Guidelines Commission, the average sentence for arson is just over four years. The average sentence for assault can be 13 years, or can even go up to life, depending on the circumstances. Promoting prostitution can get a defendant five years and robbery will get a defendant six and a half years.

Latanya Clemmons, the sister of Lakewood cop killer Maurice Clemmons, who helped hide the suspected getaway driver in a Federal Way motel, was given five years for her role. Vehicular homicide, where alcohol is involved, has an average sentence of two to three years.

"Vehicular homicide is unbelievably low," Goodhew said.

In Washington state, vehicular homicide is separate from manslaughter, which can carry a higher sentence. For example, if someone is playing with a gun that accidentally fires and kills another person, the person holding the gun could be charged with manslaughter in the first degree and would face six to nine years in prison for one count, according to Goodhew.

"It's never made a lot of sense, just because it's reckless in a car rather than with a gun," Goodhew said.

In Federal Way

In 2007, 317 drivers were arrested in Federal Way for DUI, officer Raymond Bunk said. In 2008, 297 were arrested, he said.

Not everyone who is pulled over is arrested. If the driver does not show symptoms of intoxication and passes the field sobriety test, he or she is typically deemed capable of driving.

Nationally, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 15.1 percent of the nation's drivers (18 and older) drove under the influence of alcohol at least once from 2004-2006. States with the highest rates of driving under the influence of alcohol in that time frame, among adults ages 18 or older, were Wisconsin (26.4 percent), North Dakota (24.9 percent), Minnesota (23.5 percent), Nebraska (22.9 percent), and South Dakota. Washington state came in halfway through the list, at 13.8 percent.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD):

On average someone is killed by a drunk driver every 45 minutes. In 2008, an estimated 11,773 people died in drunk driving related crashes, a decline of 9.8 percent from the 13,041 drunk driving related fatalities of 2007.

In 2001, more than half a million people were injured in crashes where police reported that alcohol was present — an average of one person injured almost every minute.

In 2007, the rate of alcohol impairment among drivers involved in fatal crashes was four times higher at night than during the day (36 percent vs. 9 percent).

Alcohol-related crashes in the United States cost the public an estimated $114.3 billion in 2000, including $51.1 billion in monetary costs and an estimated $63.2 billion in quality of life losses. People other than the drinking driver paid $71.6 billion of the alcohol-related crash bill, which is 63 percent of the total cost of these crashes.

In 2007, 31.6 percent of the 41,059 traffic fatalities occurred in crashes in which at least one driver or non-occupant had a BAC of 0.08 or greater.

A first time drunk driving offender on average has driven drunk 87 times prior to being arrested.

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