Can the Legislature Change Montana’s Drinking Culture?

By Beacon Staff

In an attempt to alter Montana’s ingrained culture of drinking, the 2011 state Legislature passed more laws cracking down on drunken driving than any session in recent memory. With those laws taking effect, it now falls on the justice system to implement the new measures.

On a warm evening last week, local police, judges, attorneys and transportation officials gathered to acknowledge the progress made in combating drunken driving, as well as assess the daunting work ahead in reducing a crippling problem on the state’s roadways. The event was organized by Becky Sturdevant, a volunteer for M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), who lobbied the Legislature in support of tougher DUI laws.

Nearly everyone who spoke described how ineffective previous policy attempts to reduce drunken driving, by incrementally increasing punishment, have been – necessitating drastic measures that adopt new programs and confer more authority on the so-called “DUI courts,” which aim to alter the behavior of repeat offenders.

“It’s quite a burden for us and that’s why I was so gratified to see the Legislature take this issue so seriously,” Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan said, adding that his department has prosecuted more than 2,500 DUIs since 2005.

In 2010, according to Montana Transportation Department Director Jim Lynch, alcohol-related fatal crashes accounted for about half of all deadly crashes in the state, but those numbers have been gradually, steadily declining for years. Over the five years spanning 2005-2010, total alcohol- or drug-related crashes have declined by 13.2 percent.

“We get it. We know what we need to do,” Lynch said. “Are we on the right track? I think we are.”

In 2011, fatal crashes in Montana are down to 36 as of May 2, compared to 50 at the same time last year, indicating that declines continue. Of the 36 fatal crashes this year, eight involved alcohol.

A spate of new laws passed in the recent Legislature aim to bring those numbers even lower. The flagship law, carried by Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, allows counties to adopt the “24/7 Sobriety Project,” where repeat DUI offenders must submit to twice daily breath tests or face jail.

“This holds these violators accountable, as the violators that are really most dangerous are the repeat violators,” Lavin, a sergeant in the Montana Highway Patrol, said. “I was lucky to carry this bill because it sold itself.”

A few moments later, Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry announced his department would be adopting the 24/7 program, which Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial said has been effective there.

“It’s critical that the Flathead participate,” Curry said. “How exactly that participation actually looks has yet to be worked out.”

Other measures also demand significant care in their implementation, like the new law allowing officers to obtain a search warrant if a repeat DUI offender refuses a breath test, or the creation of the new charge of “aggravated DUI,” to be applied to repeat offenders, those with a particularly high BAC, (blood alcohol content), or who have other pending charges.

“What’s going to be difficult, however, is implementing this out in the field,” Corrigan said.

“We have got to be able to hold these people accountable, not only for what they did on the night they were arrested, but for their behavior in subsequent months,” Corrigan added. “That plays a huge role, from my perspective, in helping get this problem under control.”

Beyond arrests and charges, Kalispell Municipal Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht described the success of the DUI Court program, which assembles a team of police officers, counselors and prosecutors to impose strict guidelines on DUI offenders who elect to enroll in the program. Since it’s inception in 2009, Ulbricht said 16 people have graduated from the program.

Despite progress, troubling aspects of Montana’s drunken driving problem persist.

Lynch pointed out that 329 of the Montana drivers involved in alcohol-related crashes in 2010 were 20 years old or younger.

“This just should not be happening,” Lynch said.

Curry lamented the failure of a bill aimed at combating underage drinking, which would have increased penalties on adults who host parties where teens have access to alcohol.

“I was kind of sad to see the social host bill not pass,” Curry said.

Corrigan called for laws holding bars and servers accountable when they over serve to someone and allow that person to get behind the wheel. He also said he supports increasing the penalty for felony DUI from five years to 10 years, and that felony DUI should be for a third offense, not the fourth offense.

“It’s a start, but there are still things to do,” Corrigan added. “We can’t get complacent.”

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