Slate of DUI Bills Hit Montana Legislature

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Lawmakers aiming to crack down on drunk driving made it clear Wednesday that the state’s relatively lax laws on driving drunk very likely could get a makeover over the next several months.

The spotlight on repeat drunk driving has intensified over the past couple of years following some high-profile deaths and a promise from policymakers to do something about it.

House and Senate committees meeting Wednesday and Thursday were looking over 17 proposals that included everything from tougher penalties to more treatment.

But lawmakers will be forced to weigh the cost of some of the bills against a desire by Republican leadership to cut about $200 million from the governor’s proposed spending plan. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has also been cool toward ideas that spend money by locking people up.

The measures with big price tags could be slow to advance through the committees as sponsors look for cheaper ways to get the job done.

The Senate Judiciary Committee gave immediate and unanimous approval Wednesday to a plan to suspend or deny a driver’s license to minors caught drinking underage. There are about 3,000 such cases a year.

And the full House gave initial approval Wednesday on a 72-28 vote to House Bill 18 that says juveniles who kill while driving drunk in some cases should be tried as adults, despite opposing arguments that sending juveniles to prison makes a bad situation worse. Prosecutors say there are only a handful of such cases a year.

One high-profile plan, House Bill 106, backed by Attorney General Steve Bullock requires repeat drunk driving offenders to undergo twice-daily breath tests at their own expense as part of the requirement of getting bail. Supporters say the program has been effective elsewhere ensuring repeat drunk drivers sober up.

“We are not doing enough to combat the problems up front,” Bullock told the House Judiciary Committee. “I think it is time to stop the insanity of doing the same thing over and over.”

The whole package of bill was supported by a large group of law enforcement, activists opposed to drunk driving and others. There was largely very little opposition during public testimony.

State Sen. Greg Hinkle summed up the motivation for many of the bills while pitching his Senate Bill 10 to strip minors caught drinking of their driver’s license, unanimously approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee after Wednesday’s hearing.

“This carnage that has been taking place on Montana’s highways has got to stop,” Hinkle said. “We are not going to get rid of it entirely, but we can get rid of a lot of the heartbreak.”

The bills heard Wednesday and scheduled for Thursday tackle the problem in many ways. Some others:

— Senate Bill 15 creates aggravated DUI for blood alcohol levels above 0.20 percent and House Bill 146 would dramatically increase penalties for habitual DUI offenders. More incarceration and court costs could be millions of dollars per year.

— Senate bills 40 and 42 makes it much easier to get a warrant, at all hours, and to take blood tests of those who refuse a breath test.

— House Bill 12 doubles to one year the time misdemeanor DUI offenders can be under court supervision and House bills 67 and 69 aims to increase treatment, in part with the threat of more jail time.

— House Bill 14 removes the ban on looking back further than five years for past drunk driving offenses for determining a multiple DUI offender.

— House Bill 27 would brand a DUI offenders driver’s license, drawing the ire of the ACLU of Montana that says such a move would permanently label a person the “town drunk.”

— House Bill 33 would create offenses for driving under the influence of drugs, with an unknown costs. It was opposed by medical marijuana advocates argued that drug can stay in the system long after impairment has worn off.

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