Montana Senate OKs Higher DUI Fines

Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, sponsored the bill to address what he and supporters call Montana's lax DUI penalties

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — Seven Democratic senators joined 20 Republicans on Saturday to approve a bill increasing DUI penalties on a 27-23 vote that reversed the Senate’s on Friday.

Republican-sponsored House Bill 488 would double minimum fines for driving under the influence and clarify that the same penalties apply to people driving high on marijuana. It would also levy a $300 fine on anyone believed to be driving under the influence who refuses to submit to a drug test.

Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, sponsored the bill to address what he and supporters call Montana’s lax DUI penalties.

“Minimum fines for DUIs have gone untouched for many years, making Montana one of the least punitive states in the nation on first and subsequent DUIs,” said Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, who carried the bill in the Senate.

The bill failed on a 24-26 vote in the Senate on Friday, but senators later voted to reconsider and vote again Saturday.

Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, said on Friday that the proposed fine for denying an initial drug test is unnecessary and negates people’s right to refuse a Breathalyzer test.

“I’m so tired of trying to pick people’s pockets over these bills,” Keane said of proposals to increase fines.

Webb agreed with Keane’s reasoning for opposing the new fine, saying “when is enough enough?” But he said the $300 fine would put the financial burden of obtaining blood samples on those who refuse them instead of state taxpayers.

As for the doubled fines for those found guilty, Webb said too many Montana drivers receive five or more DUI convictions.

“Evidently we’re not getting folks’ attention,” Webb said.

Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe, D-Great Falls, said recidivism is exactly why she changed her Friday “yes” vote to a “no” on Saturday.

Moe said she was contacted by a woman who convinced her that additional fines likely won’t deter repeat offenders and would instead impoverish the families of DUI offenders. “It pushes those families further into a spiral of despair,” Moe said.

The proposal faces another vote in the Senate before it would go back to the House for concurrence.