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Saturday, April 14, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tougher penalties for hit-and-runs

The Associated Press

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OLYMPIA - When Kent firefighter Geoff Simpson arrived at the scene of the hit-and-run wreck that killed Carol Thueringer, he knew the devastation was something he'd never forget.

Yesterday, Simpson, now a freshman state legislator, stood beside Thueringer's husband and two daughters as Gov. Gary Locke signed a bill to stiffen penalties against hit-and-run drivers.

"The system works," Dennis Thueringer said.

His wife was a few blocks from home when another driver slammed into her car at about 80 mph. She was killed instantly. The other driver abandoned his car and fled on foot.

Police identified the driver relatively easily - he had just bought the car, and the sales papers bearing his home address were still in it. Still, Thueringer said, it took a year for police to build a strong enough case to press charges. The driver eventually pleaded guilty.

During the lengthy court process, Thueringer and King County prosecutors struggled with a loophole in the law. A vehicular homicide in which the driver was under the influence of alcohol is punishable by up to three years, five months in prison.

But a hit-and-run accident resulting in death carries a maximum punishment of only two years and three months in prison. So, a drunken driver who flees a fatal accident gets off with a lesser penalty than one who stays at the scene.

"It looks to me like a reward for leaving the scene," Thueringer said. He said he wasn't as frustrated about the loophole as the prosecutor was.

"It doesn't matter what the courts do, it isn't going to change anything in our life," he said. "I've got the girls to take care of."

But he still had the issue on his mind when he started getting campaign fliers in the mail last fall from the two candidates for state House in his district, Republican incumbent Phil Fortunato and Democratic challenger Simpson. He e-mailed both of them about his wife's death and the legal loophole and quickly got a response from Simpson.

"That's ridiculous that someone should be rewarded for their cowardice," Simpson said yesterday. He promised Thueringer he would help change the law whether or not he was elected.

Simpson won by 135 votes, and House Bill 1280 was the second bill he sponsored. It increases the penalty for hit-and-run resulting in death to be the same as the penalty for vehicular homicide involving alcohol.

Locke signed it into law yesterday; it will take effect in July.

FACTS

New laws

Gov. Gary Locke signed 18 other bills into law yesterday, including:

** House Bill 1309, which orders the state Health Department to establish training requirements for technicians who perform dialysis. It also requires dialysis centers to register and certify technicians with the Health Department.

** HB 1317, which allows emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to continue carrying and administering epinephrine, a drug used to treat severe allergic reactions. The legislative authority allowing EMTs to administer epinephrine was set to expire at the end of the year; this law extends it indefinitely.

** Senate Bill 5013, which clarifies the repeat-sex-offender law. The "three strikes" law mandates a sentence of life in prison for anyone convicted of three "strike" offenses or two sex-crime strikes. This law authorizes judges to count sex-crime convictions in other states as strikes in Washington, even if the crime goes by another name in the other state.

** SB 5022, which requires members of the Salmon Recovery Funding Board to file personal financial-disclosure statements with the Public Disclosure Commission.

** SB 5048, which requires that courts give great weight to a person's history when deciding whether to commit someone to a psychiatric hospital.

** SB 5258, which requires health-care providers sending medical records to make sure fax numbers are correct and to verify the numbers before transmission.

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