HELENA — Alcohol is too easy for kids to get and the sanctions against underage drinking are basically meaningless, a group of teenagers told lawmakers here Wednesday.

“For (minor in possession), the first offense is a slap on the wrist,” Helena High senior Lindsey Dowling told the Law and Justice Interim Committee at a daylong meeting on drunken driving and other alcohol-related problems.

The 12-member bipartisan panel has been studying drunken driving for more than a year and is finalizing bills that it hopes to forward to the 2011 Legislature that convenes in January.

Dowling and a group of students from Helena and Mineral, Sanders and Lake counties urged lawmakers to take a harder look at the punishments for underage drinkers and the adults who provide them with alcohol.

“Underage drinking is an epidemic,” Christian Zigler told the panel. “It’s tearing our youth and our future apart.”

She and others told lawmakers to stiffen the penalties on minors who get alcohol-related convictions, like making it impossible for young offenders to get driver’s licenses until they are 18 — or even 21.

“It’s punishment,” Zigler told the panel, saying she supported suspending driver’s licenses for underage drinking until age 21. “We should hold them accountable.”

The teens also urged lawmakers to allow counties to pass laws forbidding adults from hosting alcohol parties for underage people. Current law allows cities to pass such “social host” laws and many cities and towns in Montana have such bans in effect.

However, many teenagers merely take their drinking outside city limits, the students said. With that in mind, students also said they support allowing game wardens to issue citations for minor in possession of alcohol, if the wardens come upon an underage drinking party.

Underage drinking was only one of many aspects of alcohol abuse that the committee took up Wednesday.

The group also heard from David Carter, a Yellowstone County deputy attorney, who proposed two bill drafts for the committee to consider.

The proposals embraced by the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force look at two persistent problems in Montana’s DUI regulatory scheme: Problem drinkers who drive while heavily intoxicated or who get back-to-back DUI charges and those who refuse to submit to a breath test.

Carter wants to create a new offense of aggravated DUI. Current law holds that drunken driving convictions are misdemeanors until the fourth offense. Fourth-time drunken drivers are charged with a felony and can be sent to the state’s lock-down alcohol treatment center.

But some people need significant treatment before then, Carter said in an interview.

“A fourth or subsequent DUI is way too late in the game,” he said.

An aggravated DUI would kick in if someone has a blood alcohol content of 0.20 percent or greater — nearly three times the legal driving limit. The charge could also come if someone gets multiple DUIs in a short period of time.

Punishments for aggravated DUI would be greater: A fine of up to $5,000 and, importantly, Carter said, probation of up to three years and the possibility of jail time for up to one year.

The long probation is necessary to give a judge the ability to keep tabs on someone and make sure they are keeping clean and sticking to any kind of court-mandated treatment, Carter said.

“This is the guy who needs to have substantive treatment,” he said.

Carter also unveiled a proposal to dramatically increase the punishments for someone who refuses to take a breath test and who already has one DUI on his or her record.

That proposal would take away a person’s driver’s license for up to 10 years if the person refuses a breath test. It would also carry a fine of $5,000.

Members of the committee presented 12 ideas of their own, from mandating training for those who sell or serve alcohol to creating a special statewide magistrate that could issue search warrants forcing someone accused of DUI to giving a blood sample to authorities.

While the committee did take preliminary votes on its own proposed bills, Rep. Ron Stoker, R-Darby, acting chairman of the committee, said none of those votes is final. The panel will vote again on the bills, and perhaps others, at its final meeting in September.

“The consensus has been on severe punishment, treatment and education,” Stoker said of the committee’s work.


Contact Jennifer McKee at jennifer.mckee@lee.net or 406-447-4069.