Washington Supreme Court Clarifies Elements of Felony DUI

A DUI in Washington is generally a gross misdemeanor, but it can be elevated to a felony if the defendant has three prior offenses, as defined under the statutes within the past 10 years.  RCW 46.61.502.  RCW 46.61.5055 sets out which convictions qualify as prior offenses, including reckless driving if it resulted from a charge that was originally filed as a DUI.  A Seattle DUI attorney can explain whether a conviction may be considered a prior offense.

The Supreme Court of Washington recently reviewed a felony DUI conviction.  At the time of the offense, the statute required four prior offenses for elevation to a felony, but it has subsequently been amended to require only three.  The defendant had a previous DUI conviction, a first-degree negligent driving conviction, and two convictions for reckless driving.  At trial and on appeal, the defendant argued that the state failed to present sufficient evidence that the reckless driving convictions “involved alcohol.”

The trial court assessed the prior convictions on the record and found that there was sufficient evidence for the case to move forward.  The court did not instruct the jury that it had to find that each prior offense involved alcohol to find the defendant guilty of felony DUI.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the prosecution failed to present sufficient evidence that the reckless driving convictions involved alcohol.  He also argued that it was a jury question whether each offense involved alcohol and that the trial court erred in not instructing the jury to make that determination. The appeals court affirmed the conviction, with the majority finding that whether the convictions qualified as “prior offenses” to support the elevation to felony DUI was a question of law.

The Supreme Court of Washington granted review due to a conflict in the appeals courts. Division Two had held that whether drugs or alcohol were involved in the prior conviction is an essential element of felony DUI.  That issue, therefore, must be decided by the jury. In this case, however, Division One held that the fact that a person had four prior offenses is an essential element of the crime for the jury to decide, but whether a particular conviction meets the statutory definition of “prior offense” is a question of law for the court to decide before admitting evidence of the offense at trial.

The Washington Supreme Court clarified that “involvement of alcohol or drugs” was not in the statute and therefore was not an essential element of felony DUI. It therefore rejected the defendant’s arguments related to the involvement of drugs or alcohol.  Since there is no essential element that the prior offense was alcohol- or drug-related, the trial court did not err in refusing to give the defendant’s proposed jury instruction.

The Washington Supreme Court held that the admissibility of prior convictions is a legal question for the court.  The previous conviction must meet the statutory definition to be admissible as a prior offense.  The jury then must decide if the essential elements of the crime have been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

The trial court had admitted the documentary evidence of the prior offenses, and the jury considered them and found that the defendant had four or more prior offenses within the past 10 years. The record showed that the negligent driving and reckless driving convictions were originally charged as DUIs.  They therefore met the statutory definition of prior offense, as did the previous DUI conviction.

The Washington Supreme Court affirmed the defendant’s felony DUI conviction. The dissenting opinion argued that without a requirement that the state prove that alcohol or drugs were involved, elevating the offense based on how the prior conviction was originally charged violated due process.  Under the majority opinion, however, the current law is that the state does not have to prove that the prior offenses involved drugs or alcohol beyond a reasonable doubt to get a felony DUI conviction.

If you are facing felony DUI or related charges, an experienced Seattle DUI attorney can fight for you.  Call Blair & Kim, PLLC, at (206) 622-6562 to set up a consultation.

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