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Gov. Steve Bullock on Friday vetoed a bill that would have increased penalties for repeat drunken drivers, calling the legislation “well-intentioned,” but “a step backward” for Montana.

The bill, HB 534, would have required prison time for a second or subsequent felony DUI.

In Montana, a person’s first three DUIs are misdemeanors, so the mandatory prison time would have kicked in at the fifth conviction.

Carried by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, the bill was pushed by prosecutors in response to criminal justice reforms passed in 2017 that eased the penalties for repeat offenders.

In the past, prosecutors could seek stiffer penalties based on if a person had received multiple felonies. The 2017 reforms stipulated that those increased penalties could only be used if the criminal history was violent or sexual in nature, meaning drunken drivers were excluded.

The House passed Mercer’s bill 68-30 and the Senate 28-22.

Under current law, anyone convicted of a second or subsequent DUI is sentenced to the Department of Corrections, which can place those people in any setting from probation to prison. Most often, they’re sent to in-patient treatment, according to Bullock’s veto letter.

Bullock pointed to a four-year downward trend statewide in felony DUI convictions, saying the Department of Corrections’ approach was working. 

“The bill would institute costly mandatory minimum sentences and limit options for treatment and other evidence-based intervention,” Bullock wrote.

The Montana County Attorney’s Association had pushed for the changes in the bill Bullock vetoed, saying they would have affected a relatively narrow segment of people who’d already been through court-ordered treatment but received another conviction afterward.

The bill would have required a mandatory two years in prison (and maximum of 10) for a second felony DUI, or a fifth total DUI.

It would have required a mandatory three years in prison (and maximum of 20) for a third or subsequent felony DUI, which would be the person’s sixth or subsequent conviction.

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Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, who had been a vocal advocate for the bill, said the measure would only have affected a small segment of the population.

“I’m not talking about the guy that’s challenging because their breath test was right at the threshold limit,” Twito told lawmakers at a committee hearing in February. “I’m talking about the people that are functioning at like a 0.3 alcohol level, 0.2, and it’s the middle of the day, the time when you go to pick up your kids at school.”

Twito said he had not yet seen Bullock’s reasoning for vetoing the bill.

“So, we’ll have to see what he says, but, [I’m] totally disappointed,” he said.

Bill supporters included the Montana Department of Justice and the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association.

Opponents included the Montana Department of Corrections and the American Civil Liberties Union.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.