HELENA — A Senate panel on Friday advanced a bill giving judges more supervision over drunken-driving suspects arrested with high blood-alcohol content and will examine another key measure next week to crack down on impaired driving in Montana.

Senate Bill 15, approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, would create the offense of aggravated DUI, for those arrested with a blood-alcohol content of 0.2 percent or higher. The legal threshold for intoxication is 0.08 percent.

Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, the sponsor of SB15, said Friday the reasoning behind his bill and related measures this session is to “change the behavior of the repeat offender.”

“There are some people who are chronic drunk drivers who are going to see a very definite change in lifestyle” if these bills become law, he said. “They definitely will get a rude awakening and hopefully it will change their lives, before it's too late.”

Next week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote on SB42, which would give arresting officers the authority to get a search warrant to require a blood or breath test from DUI suspects, whether or not they consent to it.

Supporters of SB42 have said that nearly 3,000 drunken-driving suspects a year refuse to submit to a breath or blood test in Montana, often making prosecution more difficult.

“We can get at the people who won't blow ... and the people who are using drugs (and driving),” said

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, is sponsor of SB42.

The two Senate bills are among several measures this session designed to crack down on or help prevent drunk driving in Montana, which has one of the highest rates in the nation of alcohol-related traffic deaths per miles driven.

Under Jent's bill, a person arrested with blood-alcohol content of 0.2 percent or higher would be charged with aggravated DUI. If convicted, the person would be under supervision of a judge for one to three years.

Someone arrested driving at that high a blood-alcohol level probably has been driving drunk for some time without getting caught, Jent has said, and likely is a problem drinker.

He said the extended supervision with an aggravated DUI conviction will enable a judge to send the offender to more intensive treatment and perhaps require more frequent sobriety tests.

SB15 is now headed to the Senate floor for further action.

Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee tabled a companion bill to Shockley's SB42.

The companion bill, also sponsored by Shockley, would have created three new court-appointed “standing masters” in Helena to issue immediate warrants to require blood or breath tests of DUI suspects.

However, a group representing city and county judges said the standing masters aren't needed, and that judges would be willing to issue the warrants whenever they're needed.

Shockley said that offer rendered SB40 unnecessary, so he had it killed by the committee.

A third bill, House Bill 106, which helps create a new statewide program that breath-tests repeat drunken-driving suspects, has been approved by the House and is now in the Senate. Jent said Friday he plans to carry it in the Senate.

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