Memories of Troopers’ Deaths Linger as Montana Fights Drunken Driving

By Beacon Staff

On March 23, 2009, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Haynes was driving on U.S. Highway 93 south of Kalispell when a drunken driver traveling in the wrong lane crashed head on into his patrol car. The intoxicated driver died instantly. Haynes, who was known for his enforcement of DUI laws, died four days later.

Haynes’ highly publicized death came less than a year after fellow Trooper Evan Schneider was killed in an alcohol-related accident on U.S. Highway 2, also in Flathead County. The troopers’ deaths intensified a statewide conversation about Montana’s widely documented problem of alcohol-related car accidents. In retrospect, it appears those two tragedies changed the conversation forever.

Steve Lavin, a Montana Highway Patrol sergeant and Republican legislator from Kalispell, said his colleagues’ deaths were a “wake-up call” for Montana.

Following Haynes’ death, pleas for stricter DUI laws and shifts in long-held cultural attitudes on drinking and driving reached a fever pitch. Legislators and other state officials of all stripes found something they could agree on: the need to address Montana’s dubious distinction as one of the nation’s leaders in per capita alcohol-related highway fatalities.

Most significantly, the conversation rendered not empty promises but concrete laws. Several bills were passed during the 2011 Legislature, including one to make driving with a blood-alcohol level of .16 or higher an aggravated DUI; another allowing law officers to obtain search warrants forcing drivers suspected of intoxication to submit to blood tests in certain situations; and another mandating training for alcohol servers to discourage underage drinking and over-serving.

And Lavin introduced a bill called the 24/7 Sobriety Program Act at the request of Attorney General Steve Bullock.

Earlier this month, Bullock and Lavin held a gathering at the Flathead County Courthouse in Kalispell to mark the one-year anniversary since the 24/7 Sobriety Program Act was signed into law. They were joined by Tawny Norton, who was married to Haynes and since his death has become a well-known advocate for stricter alcohol laws. Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry was also in attendance.

One year in, statistical evidence shows that the 24/7 Sobriety Program is effective in preventing repeat DUI offenders from drinking alcohol. It comes at a time when the state is seeing a multi-year downward trend in its rate of alcohol-related accidents and deaths, according to the Montana Highway Patrol. In separate interviews, Norton, Lavin and Bullock each described the statistics as “exciting.”

Referring to the role her late husband’s death played in bringing forth policy changes, Norton said “unfortunately that’s often the way it is: something tragic has to happen before people do anything.”

“It brought a lot of attention to the problem,” Norton said from her Kalispell home last week. “Montana has always had this culture of acceptance with drinking and driving, but I think it’s changing. I think Montana has come a really long way.”

Under the 24/7 Sobriety Program, DUI offenders with two or more offenses must go to a central law enforcement site to take a breathalyzer twice a day – in the morning and evening. Offenders pay $2 for each test, shifting the cost burden entirely out of taxpayers’ hands. In rural areas without easily accessible testing sites, offenders may wear SCRAM bracelets that monitor alcohol consumption.

Bullock started the 24/7 Sobriety Program as a pilot project in Lewis and Clark County in May 2010. In a recent interview, Bullock said his initial interest in the program was piqued after conversations with South Dakota’s attorney general. South Dakota has had a 24/7 Sobriety system in place since 2005.

After observing the pilot project’s effectiveness in keeping repeat DUI offenders from drinking, Bullock took the idea to the Legislature where Lavin introduced HB 106: the 24/7 Sobriety Program Act.

“In the past we’ve just been tinkering around the edges as opposed to really diving in and saying, ‘How do we make systemic changes?’” Bullock said last week.

Tawny Norton has been an advocate of stricter DUI laws since her husband, Trooper Michael Haynes, was killed by a drunken driver three years ago. Lido Vizzutti / Flathead Beacon

Since the program went into effect on Oct. 1, 2011, more than 56,000 breath tests have been administered, according to figures from Bullock’s office. Participants have passed 55,840 of those tests for a success rate of 99.7 percent. In 183 tests, participants “blew hot,” while there were also 1,446 “no shows.” Including no shows, the success rate is 97.1 percent.

Three hundred offenders have participated in the program by wearing SCRAM bracelets, which test for alcohol every 30 minutes. Of the more than 1 million SCRAM bracelet readings since Oct. 1, there have only been 28 confirmed alcohol violations and another 97 tampering incidents.

While first-time DUI offenders often alter their behavior to ensure they never get another one, repeat offenders pose an entirely different dilemma. Program advocates say 24/7 Sobriety helps repeat offenders turn around their lives as they stay sober and out of jail. And it gives judges an effective sobriety enforcement tool.

“Repeat offenders placed in the program aren’t sitting in jail, but they aren’t sitting in the bars either,” Bullock said. “They can work, they can study, they can look after their families – but they can no longer drink and drive, and get away with it.”

Bullock hopes to see all 56 counties adopt the program. Currently, 16 counties have it and 11 more are working with the attorney general’s office to implement it. Flathead County was one of the first to get onboard and Sheriff Curry said the program has been a success.

“Keeping impaired drivers off our roadways is and has to be one of our top priorities,” Curry said in a statement. “This program will not only help us accomplish that goal, but it has the added advantage of reducing the number of people in the county jail.”

Lavin said the Legislature will continue to look at ways to address drunken driving but said the 24/7 program “is a huge step, in my opinion.”

“I think politics were set aside and we did something really important to make this state a safer place,” Lavin said of the bill’s bipartisan support.

Both Norton and Becky Sturdevant, Trooper Schneider’s mother, have been outspoken advocates for stiffer DUI and over-serving laws. In the past three years, Norton has spoken to the Legislature, at town hall meetings and wherever else her story could have an impact.

Norton says it’s one thing for a politician or law enforcement officer to talk about changing laws, but it’s quite another for a widowed mother of two children to talk about losing her husband to a drunken driver.

“I think it’s important for people to see me and my kids and the devastation it’s left behind,” she said. “It’s important for people to identify with someone. I’m not a lobbyist. I’m not a legislator. I’m not an officer. A lot of times, people can’t see past the uniform.”

Bullock counts himself among those who have been affected by the sight of Haynes’ family. He recalls seeing Norton and her kids at Haynes’ funeral three years ago and thinking the kids looked about the same age as his own. It was a chilling moment for the state’s top law official and it has stuck with him. That memory, along with reading too many headlines about DUI tragedies, serves a reminder of the issue’s grave importance in Montana.

“The aim is to make sure that in the future we’re not reading about someone getting their sixth or seventh DUI,” Bullock said. “But that’s something that will certainly take time.”

Norton hopes Montana can capitalize on this momentum. After decades in which drinking and driving was widely seen as an accepted “Wild West” norm – where enforcement of open-road drinking laws represented a form of personal rights infringement – Norton believes the state is witnessing the earliest stages of a cultural shift.

“My job has been just to make people want to see a change,” Norton said. “Michael’s passion was getting drunk drivers off the road. I’ve really tried to take it upon myself to continue that and get drunk drivers off the road. Hopefully he would be proud of me.”