Tri-Cities judge suspended after 2nd DUI. But he gets to keep his job

A Benton County District Court judge caught driving drunk twice in five years will get to stay on the bench — after a one month suspension.

The Washington State Supreme Court signed off on an agreement between Judge Terry Tanner and Washington’s Commission on Judicial Conduct.

The court’s decision came 11 months after Tanner was arrested in Richland with a blood-alcohol level at nearly three times the legal limit.

The agreement will censure Tanner but allow him to keep his elected job after a 30-day suspension that’s scheduled to start Monday, Nov. 20.

In addition, Tanner won’t be allowed to consume alcohol until he leaves office, must submit to random drug screenings and won’t be allowed to handle any DUI cases.

The single-page order signed by Chief Justice Steven González includes no commentary on the court’s decision.

The justices cannot change the terms of the censure once the commission settles on them, according to state officials. Their only option is to approve the agreement or to send it back to the commission for a hearing.

Tanner’s Jan. 2 arrest was the second time he was caught drinking and driving since becoming a judge in 2009. The agreement noted this offense is the most serious type of crime that District Court judges handle.

Judge Terry Tanner
Judge Terry Tanner

In addition, he lied to police about driving the car, an action that erodes the trust of the public in judges, according to the commission’s agreement.

But commission members said they realized even the most entrenched addict can make the changes necessary to alter their behavior.

The agreement noted that most of Tanner’s service as a judge has been commendable. He has been candid with the commission and is now making a sincere effort to avoid alcohol, the commission said.

While Tanner will stay on the bench, his actions have drawn criticism from attorneys. Most notably, Prosecutor Eric Eisinger previously called for Tanner to resign.

Eisinger shared his opinion in a letter in September to the county’s District Court judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys.

“From my perspective, it’s wonderful that Judge Tanner is getting the help he needs and addressing his alcoholism,” he told the Tri-City Herald at the time. “But I don’t think it serves the people of Benton County for him to be in the position.”

“The reality is when you are enforcing the law and imposing consequences for violations of the law, your integrity matters. A judge’s integrity is a core part of the public’s ability to put faith in the justice system.”

2023 DUI crash

Tanner is currently under a five-year deferred prosecution in connection with the Jan. 2 crash on Kingsgate Way, according to Benton County District Court documents.

Tanner was behind the wheel of a 2014 Cadillac sedan when he became high-centered on a concrete block near a gas station, said court documents.

Benton County District Court Judge Terry M. Tanner Jr. was suspended for driving drunk and high centering his car on a concrete block in Richland.
Benton County District Court Judge Terry M. Tanner Jr. was suspended for driving drunk and high centering his car on a concrete block in Richland.

A witness helped Tanner out of the car and moved him to a place where he could sit down. When police arrived, he initially denied he was driving and tried to claim that the car didn’t belong to him.

Four breathalyzer tests registered a blood-alcohol level of 0.22% or more — nearly three times the legal limit of 0.08%.

The DUI case was transferred over to Yakima County District Court to avoid any local conflict of interest. His 5-year deferred prosecution agreement requires Tanner to receive alcoholism treatment, use an ignition interlock to drive and to submit to tests for alcohol use.

If he completes the program and avoids any other trouble, he is eligible to have the DUI removed from his record.

If he violates the terms of the agreement, a judge can determine his guilt based on the police reports and he could be sentenced to one month up to one year in jail.

Under Washington state law, it will be his only chance at deferring prosecution. It also required a diagnosis of alcoholism, substance addiction or mental health issues.

2018 DUI crash

The last time Tanner was in front of the Commission on Judicial Conduct was after being arrested for a DUI in 2018 when he drove into a mailbox.

A witness found a smashed sedan about 11 p.m. in March 2018, and Tanner was sleeping in the driver’s seat.

A Benton County sheriff’s deputy arrived to find Tanner “crouched and hiding behind a mailbox,” and he initially lied to the deputy. Later, Tanner pleaded guilty to DUI.

He was sentenced to one day in jail, which was converted to 15 days on electronic home monitoring.

WA judicial conduct commission

Censure is the most serious of the three levels of discipline that the judicial commission can recommend. Censure can include suspension or removal for office.

He was previously reprimanded for his 2018 conviction, and ordered not to get in any more trouble. His DUI conviction at the time also carried requirements for him to stay out of trouble for five years.

This time, the commission noted that Tanner’s two DUI convictions involved him lying to the police, eroding the trust in the judiciary.

“Unlike some other criminal offenses, DUI is a crime frequently committed by people in all walks of life,” the decision said. “Dedicated, competent, hard-working and well-liked people who drive under the influence of alcohol are equally as dangerous as anyone else who drives under the influence.”

But the commission stopped short of recommending he be removed from his position. They noted he had been a “dedicated, competent, hard-working judge” who was well-liked outside of these two incidents.

They pointed to therapeutic courts across the state, which have been successful in treating even people with long-term problems.

“Since his latest arrest and full embrace of the reality of his alcoholism, respondent (Tanner) has manifested in word and deed his complete acceptance of his responsibility to change and has manifested without excuses entirely positive responses to treatment,” said the recommendation.