Top Drunken-Driving Bill Going to Governor’s Desk

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Montana Legislature is capping much of its work on overhauling the state’s culture of drunken driving — blamed as the cause of some of the nation’s deadliest highways — by sending the governor its top DUI crackdown proposal.

The state House endorsed the so-called “24/7” program in an overwhelming final vote Tuesday, an action spurred by several high-profile deaths in recent years, and increased worry over the state’s annual ranking at or near the top of per-capita drunken driving deaths.

The program, which is advocated by Attorney General Steve Bullock, requires repeat DUI offenders to take a breath test twice a day, every day, at their own expense from the time of arrest until their sentence is completed. Supporters say it has proved successful in keeping repeat offenders sober during a pilot project, and costs taxpayers nothing since the offenders pay for the tests.

“Legislators from all walks of life and from every corner of our state got behind this simple, effective and low-cost way to combat DUI,” Bullock said in a statement.

“I think it’s a very, very important step forward in dealing with repeat offenders,” said Rebecca Sturdevant, with Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “One of the key things with repeat offenders is they are driving drunk many times before they are arrested. This will make a huge difference in earlier intervention for these people.”

Lawmakers came into the session in January hoping to deal with a drunk driving situation in Montana that many believe has been allowed to remain a problem for far too long. Several other crackdown measures have been sent to the governor — while others failed on the occasionally rocky road this session to drunk-driving reform.

One of the two legislators who voted against the “24/7” program was state Rep. Alan Hale, a bar owner from Basin who turned heads with a speech a few weeks ago railing against drunken-driving reform. He said the tough DUI laws were bad for business and “are destroying a way of life that has been in Montana for years and years.”

It wasn’t the only perceived foible on the Legislature’s path to the crackdown. Early in the year, a lawmaker helping lead the charge to reform, Sen. Jim Shockley of Victor, was caught driving through Missoula while drinking a beer and was forced to resign his chairmanship of the judiciary committee analyzing the issue.

Other measures to successfully clear the Legislature, or close to clearing, included bills that would make it easier for police to get a warrant for blood tests on repeat offenders refusing a breath test; for courts to order treatment; and to create an offense with stiffer penalties for those caught driving with really high levels of blood-alcohol.

Failures included a plan, rebuffed by the Senate again on Tuesday, to extend the timeframe courts could use to count previous drunken-driving convictions. Courts currently can only include DUIs over the past five years when determining repeat offenders for purposes of leveling charges and punishment.

Opponents argued that it was too harsh to look into the distant past for previous offenses that could result in significantly higher punishments.

Sturdevant said the alcohol industry and bar owners, pointing to Hale’s speech, helped kill that and other measures aiming to crack down on first offenses.

“You have a representative like Rep. Hale coming out and telling people it is bad for business. The alcohol industry, that is where they are coming from,” she said. “If we have strong DUI laws, it makes people drink less in their bars, and that is bad for business.”

She argued it is more important to save lives with the tougher laws.

Sturdevant said that overall, the Legislature has been a big success, largely due to allies. She pointed to Republican Rep. Steve Lavin, a highway patrolman who carried the “24/7” program; Helena prosecutor and Democratic Rep. Mike Menehan; Democratic gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Larry Jent of Bozeman; and even Shockley — who has been planning a run for the Republican Party’s nomination in 2012 for attorney general.

“We are not done,” Sturdevant said. “We have a foundation, but we still have some work to do.”

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