Vancouver Man Facing 8th DUI Narrowly Avoids Strict New Law

If convicted, he faces over 2 years in jail, not 5 years in prison

By Stephanie Rice of The Columbian
The Vancouver Columbian

Vancouver, Wash. Steven K. Vanbrunt refused a breath test on Oct. 20 after a police officer pulled him over.

Many drivers blow into a Breathalyzer rather than risk automatic revocation of their license.

But Vanbrunt, 48, had nothing left to lose.

Classified as a habitual offender whose driver's license had been revoked, Vanbrunt was not even supposed to be behind the wheel that night. But there he was in his 1987 Ford F-150, driving so erratically in Cascade Park that two drivers reported him to 911.

Vancouver police Officer Stephen Capellas took note of Vanbrunt's bloodshot eyes, flushed face and how he slurred his words when he said he'd only had two beers.

Vanbrunt was cited on suspicion of driving under the influence, driving with a suspended license in the first degree and driving without an ignition interlock.

He has seven prior convictions for drunken driving, among other traffic violations.

Vanbrunt has pleaded not guilty to the most recent charges.

While Clark County is home to others who have been convicted multiple times of driving drunk, District Court judges agree Vanbrunt ranks among the very worst offenders.

On Wednesday, Judge John Hagensen set Vanbrunt's trial for March 23.

Vanbrunt, who is unemployed and lives with his mother at 105 S.E. 92nd Ave., in the Heights, declined to comment for this article.

If convicted as charged, Vanbrunt faces as much as two years, three months in jail.

Had he been arrested in July this year, he would have been subject to a new law that makes a fifth DUI in 10 years a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison.

The law was hailed by Gov. Chris Gregoire as a "very important public safety bill to get incorrigible drunken drivers off our roads," but Officer Capellas argues it doesn't go far enough.

Why do drunken drivers get five chances before they face prison? he asked.

"Even though we say we're tough on drunks, we are not tough on drunk drivers," said Capellas, the department's accident reconstructionist.

Capellas said in the past two months he has pulled over three or four habitual offenders.

They, like Vanbrunt, still have vehicles registered in their names, another fact that frustrates Capellas.

The Department of Licensing does not require owners of registered vehicles to have a license, said Brad Benfield, a department spokesman.

"An automobile is a piece of property," Benfield said. People unable to drive due to a disability, for example, can still own a vehicle but let family members drive it, he said.

On Wednesday, Vanbrunt did not say much except, "Thank you, your honor."

He had more to say June 22, when he appeared before Judge Rich Melnick. Melnick had sentenced Vanbrunt for his sixth DUI in 2004, the same year he was sentenced for his seventh.

Vanbrunt said he'd served 320 days in jail and 240 days on home confinement and had been to court-ordered treatment. He asked Melnick to suspend his final 60 days of home confinement.

"I'm glad to see you're doing better," Melnick said. "But I'm not going to change my sentence. ? Sixty days of home confinement, especially after just coming out of treatment, is not going to hurt you at all."

It was not the first time a Clark County judge had recognized Vanbrunt needed help.

In a letter to the state parole board, former Superior Court Judge Dean Morgan, who'd sentenced Vanbrunt to prison for a domestic-violence incident, said Vanbrunt "desperately needs alcohol treatment. He said at sentencing that his alcohol problem was severe," Morgan wrote.

That letter was written 22 years ago.

Did you know?

* Lawmakers have toughened DUI laws since outrage over repeat drunken driver Susan West of Issaquah, who in 1997 fatally struck Mary Johnsen, a 38-year-old mother on a walk.

* The blood-alcohol limit has been lowered to 0.08 from 0.10, and judges have been given authority to order offenders to have devices installed that would shut down their vehicles' ignition if they tried to drive after they had been drinking.

* In July, a new law takes effect that makes a fifth DUI in 10 years a felony, punishable by up to five years in prison. An investigation by the Seattle Times showed that in the past six years, 159 drivers have had at least five cases filed against them.