Alyssa Kline added an angel to the DUI Task Force tree in the lobby of the Yellowstone County Courthouse Thursday in memory of her son Ryeli.
Born two months premature after his mother was critically injured in a crash caused by a driver who had been using marijuana, Ryeli died nine days later. His mother was still in a coma.
His name will be etched in a victims’ plaque, which already contains the names of too many others killed by intoxicated drivers.
It was fitting that Ryeli be honored at the annual ceremony, Deputy County Attorney Rod Sousa said during brief noontime gathering. More drug-impaired drivers are on the roads, and the problem of drugged drivers needs to be addressed with greater recognition, additional enforcement and more prosecutions, he said.
Sousa, standing in the company of law enforcement officers, prosecutors and the families of victims, said he was disappointed in the Montana Legislature and its lack of action.
“The 2009 Legislature was discouraging,” he said. “Every substantive piece of legislation to deal with the problem was killed.”
Sousa said, however, that legislators did recognize the seriousness of impaired drivers and formed an interim committee to look at possible legislation.
After the ceremony, Deputy County Attorney David Carter, who prosecuted Matthew Kewitt, the 24-year-old driver who caused Ryeli’s death, said one of the options Yellowstone County is pushing is an “aggravated DUI” offense. Kewitt was sentenced Wednesday to five years in prison and ordered to pay nearly $1 million in fines and restitution.
It would target both repeat offenders and first-time offenders with high concentrations of alcohol in their systems, he said. Someone with a concentration of 0.15 percent, nearly twice the legal limit for driving, and offenders who have more than one DUI are those most likely to develop a chronic problem of driving drunk, he said.
Somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of people who get DUIs never repeat the offense, County Attorney Dennis Paxios said. The idea of an aggravated DUI is to identify those most likely to repeat.
The tier of treatment for those charged with aggravated DUI would be higher and more intense, Carter said.
“We want to catch them at the misdemeanor level,” he said. “We’re not attempting to make everyone a felon. We’re trying to get them real treatment — get to the heart of why they make the choice to drink and drive.”
With each additional DUI, an offender gets in deeper and the problem to the rest of society is more severe, Carter said. His or her support system may be gone. Insurance is long gone, the prosecutor said. The situation gets increasingly hopeless.
“They get to the point they don’t care anymore,” he said.
Currently, chronic drunk drivers aren’t charged with felonies until their fourth DUI. Carter said it would be prohibitively expensive to charge felonies for second and third DUIs. But catching potential chronic offenders and using intense treatment programs could prevent some from becoming perpetual road hazards.
The DUI Task Force’s annual Angel Tree ceremony honors law enforcement officers and community members who work at getting impaired drivers off the roads.
Those honored this year include:
n Billings Police Officer Steve Hallam, a night-shift patrol officer, who as of mid-November has written 34 DUI citations. Sousa told the crowd that Billings Police issue about 40 DUIs a month and are on a pace for 500 this year.
n Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Darvin Mees, who had issued 40 DUI citations up to mid-September. He has also issued 29 other alcohol-related citations and worked on 11 drug arrests. He was one of the first officers in Montana to qualify as a drug recognition expert.
n Yellowstone County Deputy Robert Lester, who as of mid-October has issued 27 DUI and 10 minor-in-possession citations. He has served on special DUI enforcement patrols.
n Laurel Police Officer David Firebaugh, who had made 28 DUI arrests as of mid-November. He is in the first phase of becoming a drug recognition expert.
n Marianne Swain of Bugz’s Casino in The Heights. Sousa said she was nominated by City Cab for her efforts to keep impaired drivers off the road through the Tavern Taxi program. The program furnishes free rides home to people who have had too much to drink. So far this year, Bugz’s has purchased 470 vouchers, Sousa said.