MISSOULA — A judge who ruled that a drunken-driving prevention program is unconstitutional has warned the Montana attorney general and 11 others that he will penalize them if they contact him again about the program outside of a courtroom.
The warning by District Judge James Wheelis in Libby came last month in an order filed after he received a letter signed by Attorney General Tim Fox, prosecutors and law enforcement officials promoting the 24/7 Sobriety Program.
The judge says in the order, filed with the Montana Supreme Court, that he will find them in contempt of court if they contact him again without following the proper laws and procedures.
Wheelis ruled in February that 24/7 program fees amounted to an unconstitutional pretrial punishment for participants. Fox is appealing the ruling to the Montana Supreme Court.
Fox spokesman John Barnes told The Associated Press Wednesday that his office was puzzled by Wheelis’ warning, since the letter went to every judge, sheriff and prosecutor in Montana and did not mention Wheelis’ ruling on the program’s constitutionality.
“We will continue to work with local law enforcement agencies to expand the 24/7 Sobriety Program, which is a proven, effective tool for combatting drunk driving,” Barnes wrote in an email.
Under the program, a judge can order people charged with a second or subsequent drunken driving offense to pay for twice-daily breath tests or an alcohol-monitoring bracelet as a condition of pretrial release. The law took effect in 2011.
The law allows county sheriffs to choose whether to participate.
The June 27 letter said the program’s simplicity and consequences for people who don’t comply with its terms “drives better behavior and outcomes.” The letter was signed by Fox, Montana Highway Patrol Col. Tom Butler, along with county attorneys and law enforcement officials from eight counties.
Wheelis responded in his order that he made his ruling based on the constitutionality of the law, and it is irrelevant whether the law is working well. He added that it is improper to contact a sitting judge about an issue ex parte, meaning without involving the other parties in the case.
Wheelis’ ruling on the program came in a lawsuit filed by a Libby man who paid $452 in program fees over nearly four months and was charged with contempt of court for missing or being late for three tests.
Wheelis wrote that he will follow the Supreme Court decision if it reverses his ruling on the program’s constitutionality.
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