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Gazette State Bureau

HELENA - The state will likely drop the legal blood-alcohol concentration for drivers to meet federal law, but along with that should come some changes in the way first-time offenders are sentenced, a lobbyist for the Montana Tavern Association said Friday.

"What you're after at 0.08 (percent blood alcohol concentration) with a first-time offender is a totally different character profile than the person who even prison terms doesn't discourage from doing it over and over and over again," said Mark Staples, a Helena attorney who lobbies for the association.

Gov. Judy Martz announced Thursday that her administration would introduce bills in the 2003 Legislature to drop the legal blood-alcohol concentration from 0.1 percent to 0.08 percent and to increase penalties for repeat drunken driving offenders. She also asked the Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Task Force to come up with legislation to increase treatment options for DUI offenders and to ban open containers of alcohol in vehicles.

The measures will all help the state meet federal law. Without an open container ban, a blood-alcohol concentration limit of 0.08 percent and strict repeat offender sentencing - including one-year drivers' license suspension for a second and subsequent DUIs - the state loses millions of dollars in federal highway construction money each year. The construction money the state loses goes into highway safety programs.

Both Martz and Staples called the federal requirements "blackmail," but said the conditions cannot be ignored.

"We understand that 0.08 is, because of the economic impact of not adopting it, probably a fait accompli," Staples said. "But we think it would be very short-sighted if, in going with these new enforcement tools, they don't look at a system of graduated penalties."

Staples said first-time offenders with blood alcohol concentrations near the limit, who have not caused an accident, injuries or property damage deserve some "recognition and some incentive to learn you lesson and never do it again." Current penalties for a first DUI include jail time of one day to six months and fines of $100 to $200.

"When you see, as we all have, the person who's got seven or eight or 10 or 12 DUIs and is still out there doing it, it's pretty clear that it isn't the responsible social drinker who might inadvertently step from 0.07 to 0.08 that is the crux of this problem, and we think that ought to be recognized," Staples said.

But, he said, the association believes repeat offenders deserve strict punishment: "Our position about them is lock them up and throw away the key."

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