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Originally published February 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 12, 2008 at 1:24 PM

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Bill proposes "scarlet letter" for DUIs: bright-yellow license plates

Not everyone agrees that such a public designation is the best way to go after drunken drivers.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — Sen. Mike Carrell wants everyone on the road to know who's been caught driving drunk.

He's sponsoring a bill that would require people convicted of drunken driving to put fluorescent-yellow license plates on their cars for one year — once their driving privileges have been restored.

"I've talked to the law-enforcement agencies and they think it would be an awfully good idea to have a way of visibly telling sheep from goats out on the road," said Carrell, R-Lakewood.

It also could help law-abiding drivers as a signal to give a wider berth to anyone behind the wheel of a car with bright-yellow plates, Carrell said.

But not everyone agrees that such a public designation is the best way to go after drunken drivers.

"The first thing it reminded me of was reading 'The Scarlet Letter' in high school," said Sen. Brian Weinstein, D-Mercer Island, referring to Nathaniel Hawthorne's 1850 novel in which the heroine must wear the letter "A" on her chest as punishment for adultery.

"Obviously I am opposed to drunken drivers. I think everyone is," Weinstein said. "But I don't think this is going to solve anything, and it will have the unintended consequence of embarrassing a lot of innocent people."

The bill, Senate Bill 6402, was approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee and now is before the Transportation Committee.

DUI offenders would be charged $10 per plate for cars. Motorcycles and mopeds would require just one plate, at a cost of $2.

Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota and Oregon have similar requirements for DUI offenders.

In Ohio, people convicted of drunken driving are issued yellow plates with crimson numbers. In Iowa, their plates contain the letter "Z." Offenders in Minnesota are issued plates that bear a unique series of numbers, and in Oregon, convicted drunken drivers display a special sticker on their license plates.

Weinstein said the rule would be unfair: What if a man committed a drunken-driving offense, but he and his wife have only one car?

"Why should she be embarrassed and have the public view her as a criminal when she's completely innocent?" Weinstein asked.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving "is not into shunning" convicted drunken drivers and doesn't support the license-plate idea, said Katherine Kovacich, regional administrator for MADD in the Pacific Northwest.

Instead, Kovacich said MADD favors legislation that would allow sobriety checkpoints and use of interlock devices that prevent a drunken driver from starting a car. Washington state already requires ignition-interlock devices. A proposal by Gov. Christine Gregoire to let police set up sobriety checkpoints under certain conditions appears to have died in the Legislature after failing to attract enough support.

"These vanity plates have no scientific data to support them that links their use to a reduction in DWI offenses," Kovacich said.

Carrell said he recognizes that innocent drivers wouldn't want to use a car with the yellow plates, but he hopes that possibility would make people think twice before drinking and driving.

"I think it would be a very large deterrent," he said.

But even if the bill doesn't act as a deterrent, it's still important to mark DUI offenders, Carrell said.

"If you have somebody who has [a] history of driving under the influence, I think it's of great value to the general public and law enforcement to spot such people," he said. "Otherwise you're looking for a needle in the haystack."

Yu Nakayama: 360-236-8169 or ynakayama@seattletimes.com

Information in this article, originally published February 12, 2008, was corrected February 12, 2008. In a previous version of this article, Sen. Mike Carrell was misidentified in a photograph.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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