Couple Sues City for Not Putting Ignition Interlock in DUI Killer’s Truck

ignition interlock device
Ignition interlock device should have been installed

After being convicted of DUI a man is ordered to install an ignition interlock. The device, a car breathalyzer which prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking, is required by law.

The offender ignores the order, even after a second arrest, and the probation officer doesn’t ask for proof that the ignition interlock was installed. Then the worst happens: the offender drinks and drives again, and this time he kills a couple, and puts two others – one of them an infant – in a coma.

Is the probation officer – and the city that employs him – liable for the deaths?

The Schulte family in Seattle, who suffered this tragedy, alleges that the city is at fault; the probation officer should have required proof that the interlock device was installed. If it had, Mark Mullan’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .22, almost three times the legal .08 limit, would have prevented him from driving and plowing into four pedestrians.

The situation is depressingly common. There have been across the US many cases in which convicted drunk drivers killed or injured others because they ignored an order to install an interlock. While more and more states are passing laws to require interlocks, those states do not always ensure that offenders comply with the order.

But what is uncommon is the party being sued. Civil cases involving DUI death are usually handled as a matter between the driver and the victim’s family. The Schulte family is suing Seattle as well, and despite several tries, the city has not been able to remove itself from the suit.

Ignition interlock Laws Must Be Enforced

The plight of the Schulte family is understandable. Mullan had been ordered to install an ignition interlock after a 2012 DUI arrest. Had he done so, his breath would have failed the test and he would not have been able to drive that day. That is precisely how ignition interlocks are designed to work.

The weak link was enforcement. In Washington offenders are allowed to “wait out” an interlock requirement. Many of them will tell their probation officer that they will simply not drive until the interlock term is up.

But they do drive. In fact, statistics show that half to three-quarters of suspended drivers to get behind the wheel, unlicensed and uninsured.  Among them are drivers with alcohol problems, and it’s a good bet that they are impaired much of the time.

The Problem: Waiting Out the Interlock Period

Some states do not allow DUI offenders to wait out the interlock period. You can choose not to drive, but before you regain your license, you must have an interlock for the required period – usually one year.

This restriction allows offenders to drive, but keeps the public safe. And if they have an alcohol problem, they are forced to deal with it in order to stay mobile.

However the case goes, it’s important that Washington stops allowing DUI offenders to wait out their interlock period. Money should not be an issue: the state has an indigent program for those who cannot afford the price of a device.

Since the state adopted the devices, ignition interlocks have prevented more than 795,000 incidents of impaired driving in Washington. That’s 795,000 times that a drinker did not become a drunk driver. Interlocks do excellent work, but they can only do that work if they are installed. That means two things

  • The state must do a better job ensuring compliance, and
  • The “wait out” provision in the law must be changed, since it does little but ensure that drunks get back behind the wheel

Over the years ignition interlocks have proven their effectiveness as a way to combat drunk driving. Washington needs to make its enforcement institutions effective as well if the devices are to do their job.