Freshman Kalispell Legislator to Push for Tougher DUI Laws

By Beacon Staff

Montana legislators are introducing several new measures for the upcoming session with the intent of tightening enforcement and increasing punishment for drunken drivers. But for one freshman Flathead legislator, the cause hits closer to home.

Montana Highway Patrol Sergeant Steve Lavin heads to Helena in January as the representative for Kalispell’s House District 8. A Republican, Lavin is carrying his first bill for Democrat Attorney General Steve Bullock: a measure that would require repeat drunken drivers to submit to breath tests, twice a day, to prevent them from drinking.

“I don’t think it’s a partisan issue: DUI and saving lives,” Lavin said. “I really hope we pass it and I hope it’s successful.”

Dubbed, the “24/7 Sobriety Program,” in March Bullock unveiled a program in Lewis and Clark County virtually identical to Lavin’s bill, requiring the twice-daily tests. Based on its success there, and in South Dakota, Lavin believes there’s a lot less uncertainty with this approach than others aimed at reducing drunken driving.

“You’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he said. “This thing’s been tested; it’s gotten great results.”

The bill specifically requires DUI offenders convicted twice or more to report to their local sheriff’s office for breath tests, ideally in the morning and evening, 12 hours apart. Failing the test would lead to arrest or jail. If an offender lived too far from the sheriff’s office to report for a test, they would have to wear a SCRAM bracelet, which monitors alcohol consumption through perspiration. Lavin also likes the bill because it requires the offender to pay for the tests, which he estimated cost about $2 each.

“It’s a successful program that really doesn’t cost the taxpayers,” Lavin said, adding that South Dakota and Lewis and Clark County had such high pass-rates for those required to take the tests that it may even reduce jail populations, saving even more public money. The program would also be optional by county, so sheriffs can decide whether they want to employ it.

Bills are introduced in nearly every legislative session aimed at ending Montana’s unfortunate, perennial ranking at or near the top of per capita drunken driving deaths among states. But in the 2011 session, frustration and grief over the problem – particularly following the deaths of multiple highway patrol officers due to drunken drivers – may have reached a tipping point, where lawmakers feel compelled to respond with tough new laws.

Tawny Haynes, whose husband, Trooper Michael Haynes, was killed in a head-on collision with a drunken driver south of Kalispell in March 2009, has been a staunch advocate over the last year for tougher enforcement.

“We need to do something different,” Lavin said. “The subtle little changes that have been made during each Legislature obviously aren’t making a difference.”

Highway patrol officers have reached a certain level of disappointment that, year after year, Montana’s DUI-fatality rate remains so high.

“It’s frustrating to keep spinning your wheels every year and not see your stats get any better,” Lavin said. “The guys and gals that work the roads, it’s important to them,” especially those who have lost partners to drunk drivers.

Nor is Lavin the only lawmaker attempting to reform drunken driving laws. Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, is introducing a spate of measures, including one that would allow judges to appoint a magistrate able to issue warrants for blood or breath tests at any hour of the day or night, allowing officers to force a suspected drunken driver to provide a sample. Another bill, by Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, would create a charge of aggravated DUI for someone found to have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.20 or more, with steeper penalties and longer probation terms. The legal limit is 0.08.

Lavin said he likes many of these ideas, particularly the bill allowing troopers to gain warrants at any hour. But he also acknowledges much of this legislation could come with heftier price tags than the proposed 24/7 Sobriety Program bill, making for some tough choices by legislators in the months ahead.

“You’ve really got to look at weighing the scale of public safety verse cost,” Lavin said. “If you can save one person, boy, you’d be successful.”

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