Gazette opinion: DUI bills need quick action to become law this year

2011-03-30T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: DUI bills need quick action to become law this year The Billings Gazette
March 30, 2011 12:00 am

Shortly after 1 a.m. Monday, a Billings patrolman stopped a vehicle speeding on Main Street. The driver turned out to be a 27-year-old Billings man with three previous DUI convictions. He smelled of alcohol and slurred his speech, and a field sobriety test indicated that he was impaired by alcohol or other drugs. He refused to take an alcohol breath test.

This is the type of repeat DUI case that the Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office deals with regularly. How would pending legislation have made a difference for the Main Street DUI suspect?

According to Deputy County Attorney David Carter:

If Senate Bill 15 had been law when this man was arrested for DUI in 2009, he could have been charged with aggravated DUI because he had a previous conviction in 2008. The court then would have had more options for sentencing and for mandating addiction treatment — treatment that may have stopped his drunken driving. It may have kept him from facing Monday’s felony DUI charge, Carter said.

If Senate Bill 42 had been law Monday, the county attorney’s office could have sought a search warrant to compel this man to provide a breath or blood sample for alcohol testing. The results of alcohol blood and breath tests provide accurate information that can exonerate or assist in convicting a DUI suspect.

Senate Bill 29 to discourage provision of alcohol to minors and House Bill 20 to hold adults accountable when they host parties for underage drinkers might have prevented this man from access to alcohol that resulted in his first DUI conviction at age 15.

Research by the University of Montana social-work faculty and students found that the majority of felony DUI offenders in the Department of Corrections addiction treatment program got their first drunken-driving conviction when they were younger than 21.

“For repeat DUI offenders, if you deal with them early, you reduce the number of offenses,” Carter said.

On this, the 71st legislative day, the bills mentioned above and others to reduce drunken driving and get repeat offenders off the road still await crucial action in the Montana House and Senate.

HB14, sponsored by Mike Menahan, D-Helena, would allow courts to look back 10 years instead of the current five for the purposes of counting previous DUI convictions against a new offense. HB14 still has to get all the way through the Senate in whatever time remains in this regular session.

HB20, sponsored by Gordon Hendrick, R-Superior, would authorize counties to enact social-host ordinances holding adults accountable when they host drinking parties for minors. The bill passed the House on a vote of 87-12 and is scheduled for a hearing today in the Senate Local Government Committee.

SB15, sponsored by Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, would create the misdemeanor crime of aggravated DUI. It was passed by the Senate and endorsed by House Judiciary Committee, but still needs House approval and would have to return to the Senate if amended.

SB29, sponsored by Lynda Moss, D-Billings, would require training for alcohol sales people and servers on laws prohibiting providing alcohol to minors. The bill passed the Senate on a 25-24 vote and was amended in the House Business and Labor Committee. It needs to go to the full House, be approved and return to the Senate for consideration of any amendments by the House.

SB42, sponsored by Jim Shockley, R-Victor, would authorize law enforcement officials to seek search warrants from a court to obtain blood or breath tests in DUI cases. This bill passed the Senate 33-17 and was amended and approved in the House Judiciary Committee. The bill was tenatively approved Tuesday 70-29, but needs final House approval and must be sent back to the Senate for consideration of amendments.

HB106, sponsored by Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, received unanimous approval in House Judiciary, passed the House 98-1 and was unanimously endorsed by Senate Judiciary Committee members , but it has yet to be brought to the Senate floor. HB106 would allow counties to establish 24/7 sobriety projects similar to the one that has demonstrated success in Lewis and Clark County.

With time running short, we appeal to all lawmakers send these bills to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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