Washington Legislature Considers lowering the legal limit to .05 for DUI cases
In all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, if you drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 or higher, you are considered legally intoxicated and can be charged with a DUI. This per se BAC limit is fairly new, having only been imposed at the turn of the most recent century.(A per se law makes it "illegal in and of itself to operate a motor vehicle with an alcohol concentration measured at or above the established illegal level, regardless of whether or not the driver exhibits visible signs of intoxication.") Prior to this, the BAC limit had been .10, but in 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the Appropriations Act for the Department of Transportation which instructed the states to pass a .08 per se law by 2004. A state that failed to implement this type of law before the deadline would risk losing a percentage of its federal highway construction funds. Every state subsequently complied and the law has remained static since.
This may all be changing, however. Recently lawmakers in two different states have made moves to make the legal limit even lower. The first is Norm Thurston, a state representative in Utah. He is planning to introduce a bill in the 2017 legislative session that would reduce the legal BAC limit to .05%. He told local media that "This helps send that message to people, don't drink and drive. There is no safe level of drinking and driving." The second state considering a lower BAC limit is Washington. Like in Utah, the legal limit that lawmakers are proposing is .05. HB 1874 was sponsored by Representative John Lovick which would lower Washington's per se legal limit to .05. According to King 5, Representative Lovick "impairment begins after the first drink." The proposed bill is currently in committee status.
This is not the first time a proposal of this sort has been made, though it is the first time it has been made in state legislatures. The National Transportation Safety Board has been recommending reducing the legal limit for the past several years, the most recent proposal occurring in February of 2016.
However, lowering the BAC limit that much would create serious problems for some people because having just one drink an hour could push them over the limit. A chart created by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission shows just how few drinks would be needed to put people at this proposed lower limit. A 100-lb woman who consumes one alcoholic beverage would end up with a BAC of .05 and a 140-lb man would need just 2 drinks to reach the legal limit if it were .05. Though there are other factors that can affect the blood alcohol content in a person's system such whether or not the person ate beforehand, these numbers show just how fast an individual's BAC can reach .05.
A person can be arrested and charged if they are below the legal limit
It is very important to remember that while the current legal limit is .08, a person can (and will) be arrested for DUI if they are affected to any appreciable degree by alcohol. Washington Law says a person is under the influence of alcohol if they are affected to any appreciable degree. In essence, if a person is visibly impaired in the eyes of law enforcement, even if they are not at a .08 level, they can still be arrested. In my 16 years of representing people accused of DUI's, I have represented countless people who were under the legal limit yet still arrested and charged with DUI. So all of those signs drivers see that say .08 for DUI are misleading, because a person can still be well under a .08 and face the consequences of a DUI
Unlikely the per se legal limit for Washington DUI cases will be lowered this year
Whether or not HB 1874 will pass remains to be seen. Honestly, I am quite skeptical. It is not because there has been a consistent growing trend to heighten enforcement and penalties for people accused of DUI's. Instead, it comes down to funding. Lowering the legal limit will likely lead to more arrests. More arrests lead to more costs for the court system, law enforcement and jails. And the financial burden will be placed on the counties and municipalities throughout the state which are already heavily strained. I recently spoke with my state legislator who confirmed this proposed bill would not be passed because it all boiled down to costs.
I am curious as to what people feel about the proposal and why, at this time, it is likely not going to be passed.
To learn more about the history of DUI laws, check out this blog: "A Little DUI History Lesson."