Repeat DUI offenders are a menace to public safety.
On average, felony DUI offenders in Montana have driven drunk or drugged hundreds of times for each time they’ve been arrested, according to research conducted by the University of Montana. And in our state, DUI isn’t a felony until the fourth conviction.
Recent efforts to crack down on impaired driving have properly focused on holding repeat offenders accountable. New state laws have provided courts with the best evidence to determine guilt or innocence and new tools to identify those at high risk for recidivism to get them into effective addiction treatment.
However, recent Associated Press reports have exposed a serious gap in efforts to hold repeat offenders accountable. Only two of Montana’s seven tribal governments share DUI conviction records with state authorities. This means that although DUI convictions in Wyoming or North Dakota can be considered in charging a repeat offender with a Montana felony, offenses on most Montana reservations won’t count.
No borders on DUI
Both state and tribal courts should have access to an offender’s full driving record in making charging and sentencing decisions. Such sharing would strengthen joint efforts to promote public safety while respecting the sovereignty of tribal governments and the responsibility of state government.
Under federal law, tribal nations may opt to enforce their laws separately or to make a pact with state/local governments for joint enforcement. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes chose this option. The tribe retains exclusive jurisdiction over tribal members.
“This system works for us,” Flathead tribal police Capt. Louis Fiddler told the AP.
The Fort Peck Tribes have a separate court system, but have elected to report DUI convictions to the state.
Tribal courts have jurisdiction for misdemeanors only, felonies are handled in U.S. District Court. But there is no federal felony DUI offense. If the DUI driver kills or severely injures somebody, other charges may be filed in federal court.
DUI knows no borders. People drive drunk in Billings, Glendive and everywhere in between, including on Indian reservations. Curbing repeat DUI offenses is going take a strong, statewide effort, with all tribal, state, county and city governments actively participating.
Life or death challenge
The Montana Department of Transportation Highway Safety Plan lists a dozen strategies for reducing Native American involvement in impaired driving. The strategies range from overtime law enforcement patrols to addiction treatment and public education. In Montana, 67 percent of fatal crashes involving Native Americans also involve alcohol.
The MDOT’s most recent report on impaired driving statewide says: “Native American fatalities as a percentage of all fatalities tend to be high. While Native Americans account for just over six percent of the Montana population, in the past 15 years, 11 to 20 percent of traffic deaths are from the state’s Native American population.”
Stopping repeat DUI offenders is a life or death challenge for Montanans wherever they live. We ask tribal leaders and state leaders to open a dialogue on how they can work better together against impaired driving.