Commentary: Big changes come to Washington state’s DUI law


Rarely does a year go by in which the Washington state Legislature does not change the laws on how driving under the influence (DUI) is charged and prosecuted.

The 2024 legislative session was no different.

The Legislature recently passed, and the governor is expected to sign, House Bill 1493, a new law expanding opportunities for people charged with a first time DUI and making it easier for the state to charge a person with a felony.

Major changes to DUI law include:


Felony DUI charges

The crime of DUI is generally considered a gross misdemeanor offense. This means that the maximum jail sentence is less than a year, but it also means that if you are convicted of a DUI, you don’t lose your right to vote, possess a firearm or hold elected office, though a DUI conviction can affect your gun rights. However, it is possible for a DUI to rise to the level of a felony. For instance, a DUI is a felony offense if the person charged has been convicted of a DUI or a related offense at least three times in their past. However, those prior convictions only count if they occurred within a certain time period.

Until now, that “lookback” period was 10 years. HB 1493 expands this lookback period to 15 years. That means it might be easier to charge some people with an elevated felony version of DUI if their previous convictions happened between 10 and 15 years before their most recent felony charge. This should increase the number of DUIs that are charged as felony offenses.


Sentencing alternatives for felony DUI convictions

Even though the Legislature made it easier to charge a person with a felony DUI, they also expanded a popular sentencing alternative to allow a person convicted of a felony DUI to avoid or reduce their prison sentence. The Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative (DOSA) is a long-standing fixture of the law that allows a court to send someone to treatment instead of prison. HB 1493 makes this alternative available to those convicted of a felony DUI offense, but only if it’s their first felony conviction.


Changes to deferred prosecutions

HB 1493 also changes how deferred prosecutions work for first-time DUI offenders. A deferred prosecution is a program where a person charged with a misdemeanor crime can ask a court to seek treatment for mental health issues or substance use disorder. If a person completes this program, the result is a dismissal of their charges. This program is popular with people who are charged with DUIs and have a problem with drugs or alcohol, especially if they have prior offenses. However, up to now, you were only ever permitted to petition for a DUI prosecution to be deferred one time in your life.

HB 1493 expands the deferred prosecution by allowing a second deferred prosecution for a subsequent offense. There is a caveat. If a person charged with a first-time DUI chooses not to defer that prosecution, and is accused of a subsequent DUI, that person is only ever allowed to request one deferred prosecution, just like the law works now.

DUI laws and the criminal code are constantly changing. It is important to have an experienced criminal defense attorney explain your rights if you have been accused of a crime or DUI. If you are unable to afford an attorney, most criminal defense attorneys like myself offer free consultations.


Jakob McGhie is a criminal defense attorney and partner with the Centralia-based law firm Althauser Rayan Abbarno, LLP.