Montana law just got tougher for some repeat DUI offenders.
House Bill 355, which became law April 19 with Gov. Steve Bullock’s signature, will effectively increase penalties for repeat misdemeanor DUI offenders.
Under Montana law, if a driver with three or more DUI convictions is arrested again, the fourth (or subsequent) DUI offense is charged as a felony. All previous offenses count toward the total of four. The law on felony offenses didn’t change last week.
However, until last week, misdemeanor offenses of second and third DUI only counted convictions within the past five years. HB355 made two changes to narrow that break for repeat offenders.
- First, it extends the look-back period to 10 years.
- Second, it says all previous convictions count if they add up to three or more.
HB355, sponsored by Rep. Christy Clark, R-Chouteau, had no opposition at its hearing in the House Transportation Committee. It is supported by Attorney General Tim Fox, the Montana Highway Patrol, Montana County Attorneys Association, Association of Montana Troopers and Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. The bill was endorsed by that committee on a vote of 11-1 and then survived a lengthy legislative journey through three more committees and several House and Senate floor votes.
Large bipartisan majorities voted for the bill’s final passage in both chambers. The fact that 78 representatives and 38 senators voted for a stronger DUI statute speaks volumes about the changing attitudes in Montana. Lawmakers finally are voting to reflect their constituents’ outrage about drunken drivers endangering all of us.
“It’s a good bill,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito said. “It’ll primarily help our misdemeanor division and the city attorney.”
Twito noted that courts have more options for dealing with second and third offense DUI cases, such DUI treatment court. Also, repeat offenders can be required to participate in the 24/7 Sobriety program with twice-daily breath testing at the jail as a condition of staying out of jail.
The bottom line on repeat DUI is that a driver will be held accountable for past conduct, even if it’s still a misdemeanor offense. The minimum fine for second-offense DUI is $300 more than first offense. According to the fiscal note for HB355, 40 percent of first offense convictions for DUI and BAC (blood alcohol content over the legal limit) involved an offender who had prior convictions more than five years old.
Initially, HB355 sought to make the look-back period 20 years, 10 years was a compromise. It is a step forward for Montana. The law enforcement leaders who supported HB355 in 2013 should monitor its results and be ready to ask the 2015 Legislature to eliminate the look-back limit and hold every offender accountable for all DUI offenses.