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Jon Bennion

JON BENNION

It is no mystery why Montana continues to have some of the highest per-capita roadway deaths due to drunk and drugged drivers. Our laws on driving under the influence do not take impaired driving seriously, provide enough treatment or hold serial impaired drivers accountable.

The Attorney General’s Office is working to change that with Senate Bill 65, sponsored by Sen. Keith Regier, R–Kalispell.

Montana’s DUI laws are convoluted, inconsistent and scattered. Our bill overhauls the laws by simplifying them and making them easier to enforce. More importantly, our aim is to help change our dangerous culture of driving while impaired.

One reasonable step we can make is ensuring law enforcement can apply for a search warrant for blood on a suspected first-time DUI driver if probable cause exists. In Montana, these suspects can refuse to provide a breath test, and then there is no possibility of obtaining key evidence.

This loophole has existed in state law since 2011, but it only serves to ensure people are not held accountable for a first offense. We can expect drivers to continue making poor decisions if they are never convicted in the first place.

Some may argue that first-time DUI offenders do not pose a significant risk to lives on our roads, but the facts say otherwise.

In 2017, 64% of the drivers who caused fatal DUI crashes had no prior DUI conviction. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that, on average, a drunken driver will drive under the influence 80 times before his or her first DUI arrest.

Data also show that a DUI driver convicted of first offense is significantly less likely to re-offend. In 2018, there were 3,800 first-offense convictions. That same year there were 789 second-offense convictions. The pattern is the same for the last several years. As with other substance abuse issues, the earlier the intervention, the greater the chances of recovery.

Another important reason to allow a law enforcement officer to petition a court for a blood test warrant on first offense is the growing prevalence of driving under the influence of drugs. Testing blood is the only way to conclusively test for the presence of drugs like methamphetamines, opioids and marijuana.

But there is more that needs to be done, including recognizing that repeat DUI offenders have addictions that need to be treated. Having two or three DUIs on your record does not mean you are the unluckiest person in the world – it means you most likely have an addiction to alcohol or drugs.

We know that people with substance use disorders are often not able to free themselves from dependence without treatment, monitoring and other resources. Senate Bill 65 enhances opportunities for treatment earlier, before harsher measures are used at the felony DUI level.

Additionally, judges need more options for dealing with repeat DUI offenders who refuse to turn their lives around after treatment and monitoring fail. Montanans are sick and tired of headlines about someone getting a tenth DUI. That is why Senate Bill 65 allows for tougher sentences for people who refuse to change life-threatening behavior after several opportunities to treat their addiction.

Often, persons suffering from substance use disorders are in denial about their affliction. If we as Montanans can overcome some of our own denial about our problem with impaired driving and pass reasonable reforms, we will save lives and help people overcome addictions.

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Jon Bennion is the chief deputy attorney general of Montana. He has announced his candidacy for attorney general nominee in the 2020 Republican primary.

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