HELENA — Should chronic drunken drivers have bright orange license plates? Should they be forced to go to treatment after the first offense? What about those anklets that track the alcohol content of their sweat?
A group of lawmakers considered those and other ideas Friday as they took up the intractable problem of Montana’s repeat drunken drivers — a group that is largely responsible for the thousands of DUI convictions in Montana.
For most people, one DUI conviction is enough to cure them of drinking and driving, said Mike Ruppert, CEO of Boyd Andrew Community Services, of Helena, which runs a prerelease center, a meth lockdown treatment center and which offers a variety of chemical dependency treatment classes in the state. But there’s a group of people who drink and drive over and over. Those people, he said, “are almost 100 percent chemically dependent.”
Much of the discussion at the interim Law and Justice Committee was aimed at how to get the attention of such entrenched alcoholics — and how to help them break the cycle of their addiction.
The legislative panel is spending 18 months studying DUI in Montana, with the hope of finding new laws or programs that might address the issue. The study was mandated by a resolution passed by the 2009 Legislature
Some of those ideas include new, tougher crimes. Right now, driving while intoxicated is a misdemeanor crime for the first three offenses. Fourth-time and any subsequent DUIs are felonies, meaning someone convicted would be in custody of the Department of Corrections.
Lawmakers discussed the merits of making a third-offense DUI a felony, which would open up the many treatment opportunities under the Corrections Department.
The 2001 Legislature created the fourth-time felony DUI conviction. At the time, the state didn’t have any lockdown treatment centers and those DUI convicts packed the state prisons and drove Corrections’ budget into the red. In an effort to find cheaper, more effective ways of rehabilitating drunkem drivers, Montana opened the WATCh program in 2002. The program, known formally as Warm Springs Addictions Treatment and Change, started in a building on the Warm Springs campus and now has two facilities, including one in Glendive.
The programs have been successful. Ninety percent of graduates from the 13-month program have not had another DUI.
Expanding the program — and making a third DUI a felony — would not be cheap, said Bob Anez, a spokesman for the Department of Corrections. Anez estimated creating a new third-time DUI law would bring about 145 new felony convictions into the system. If all of those were served in a WATCh-style rehabilitative program, it might cost the state up to $3.1 million.
While Montana’s lockdown treatment programs have been successful, those kinds of programs are only available to felons. No one at Friday’s meeting suggested making a first DUI a felony.
That creates an inherent problem: How to intervene in the lives of drunken drivers who haven’t yet reached a felony status. Misdemeanor crimes are handled by counties, which have fewer resources than the state.
Some suggested expanding drug and drunken driving courts, where a judge works closely with an alcoholic and often mandates treatment. The judge can hold the drunken driver accountable and the alcoholic can stay in the community, where he or she can maintain their employment and meet their family obligations.
Others suggested ankle bracelets that monitor alcohol in a person’s sweat. Such anklets, known by their acronym, SCRAM, are like affixing a probation officer on a drinker’s ankle, one expert said.
Several prosecutors brought up recurring problems: Repeat drunken drivers know that they are not required to take a Breathalyzer test, which can be used to prove the person was drunk while driving. Montana law holds that people who refuse to take a Breathalyzer lose their driver’s license for a year. But the repeat offenders are going to drive with or without a license. They often don’t have a job to get to anyway, said Broadwater County Attorney John Flynn.
“They don’t care,” Flynn said.
Another problem involves DUI offenders driving on a suspended license and getting pulled over. There are no identifying marks on driver’s licenses that indicate if the license is suspended or revoked. Sometimes, said Mary Aggers, a probation and parole officer in Yellowstone County, the officer learns of a new DUI conviction for a person already on probation for DUI from reading the newspaper.
Some lawmakers issuing special driver’s licenses, or even license plates, to DUI convicts who are not allowed to drive or only allowed to drive to and from work.
The license plate idea has been before legislatures before, said Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda. The issue has always died for a host of reasons, including reality that a drunken driver’s family may also be driving that car and would be painted with the same stigma as the alcoholic.
Aggers also hit on a recurring problem, one that may prove difficult for laws alone to address:
“In our society, DUI is not often not seen as a criminal act,” she said. “DUI is often viewed as a traffic violation.”