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Edwin Cuch, 62, is facing his 14th DUI charge.

And if his case goes to trial as scheduled on June 27, jurors will have an additional drunken-driving charge to consider during deliberation.

But in a similar case that went to trial in November — where police reported finding a person drunk in a vehicle, but that person wasn’t seen driving — a jury threw out the charges.

On Tuesday, prosecutors filed amended charges against Cuch, adding an alternative count of felony DUI per se to the count of felony DUI he was already facing. He can only be convicted of one of the charges. The charges are slightly different, giving jurors more options when considering a possible conviction, Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Robert S. Spoja, the prosecutor assigned to Cuch’s case, said Tuesday.

Spoja explained that for a person to be convicted of DUI, it must be proven that the person was driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs; for a person to be convicted of DUI per se, prosecutors have to prove the person was operating a vehicle with a blood alcohol concentration greater than .08 percent.

The per se charge separates the facts of a case from “the noise” that jurors sometimes hear in DUI trials, arguments like a defendant wasn’t really “that” drunk even though his or her blood alcohol concentration was more than the legal limit of .08 percent, the prosecutor said.

“I’ve seen juries that didn’t believe a person was under the influence at .09,” Spoja said, adding that it is well established that having that much alcohol in your system makes driving dangerous.

“Unfortunately, the public perception hasn’t caught up with that,” he said. “Not everybody understands that you’re really unsafe behind the wheel at those levels and above.”

At the time of his arrest, Cuch had a blood-alcohol concentration of .187 percent, according to charging documents.

Police arrested Cuch on Oct. 19, 2013, on the 600 block of North 26th Street.

A Billings police officer found Cuch asleep, behind the steering wheel of a vehicle with a can of high-gravity beer between his legs, according to an affidavit. The vehicle wasn’t running, but a key was in the ignition.

When the officer woke Cuch and asked him if he knew where he was, the man said he was in Idaho and took a drink from his beverage, according to prosecutors.

In a case similar to Cuch’s that went to trial in November, a jury found Alvin Lee Larocque not guilty of DUI per se even though a breath test showed he had a blood alcohol concentration of .178 percent.

Larocque was arrested May 28, 2013, after Billings police were sent to check on a call about a man passed out in a vehicle in an alley behind Jefferson Street, according to court records.

An officer found Larocque, who has five DUI convictions, sleeping in the passenger seat. A screwdriver used to start the vehicle was on the seat next to him, court records state.

Spoja prosecuted that case, and Larocque was represented by Assistant Public Defender Clark Mathews, who represents Cuch.

Although he couldn’t recall specific cases, Spoja said he has seen and heard of people being convicted of more than 14 DUIs.

“There are folks out there with a lot of them, and that’s one of the things we’re constantly battling,” Spoja said. “That’s just the unfortunate reality of repeat DUI offenders — they don’t slow down.”

A Google search turns up news stories about people with as many as 20 drunken-driving arrests or convictions.

Felony DUI carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison in Montana, unless a person is designated by a judge as a persistent felony offender, which allows for a prison sentence of between five and 100 years.

In February, District Judge Gregory R. Todd sentenced John Harvey Hoots as a persistent felony offender to 30 years in prison for felony DUI.

Hoots, who had 10 prior DUI convictions, had been convicted by a jury of driving drunk on July 31, 2012, which was about six weeks after he had been released from prison on a 10-year sentence for an earlier DUI conviction. At the time of Hoots’ sentencing, Yellowstone County prosecutors thought he may have set a state record for the longest sentence for a DUI conviction.

But that record may be held by another man, Ronald Wayne Vaughn Jr., whom a Gallatin county judge sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2005 for felony DUI.

The longest sentence for a drunken-driving offense in the country may be held by a Texas man, Bobby Stovall, who caused a crash that resulted in injury while driving with a blood alcohol concentration of .32 percent, according to an ABC News report. In 2010, a judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Cuch remains in the county jail, pending the resolution of his case.



City news reporter for the Billings Gazette