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Impaired driving is a killer. Between Jan. 1 and April 29, the Montana Highway Patrol logged eight traffic fatalities in which alcohol is suspected of being a factor and 11 in which other drugs are suspected. Last year, more than 60 Montanans died in crashes where alcohol use was suspected to be a factor and 20 died crashes that investigators suspected involved other drugs. 

For the past two years, Montana county attorneys have complained that penalties for the most dangerous impaired driving offenders are out of balance on the scales of justice. The possible penalties for fifth, sixth and subsequent DUI offenses are less than for a fourth offense. 

House Bill 534 would correct that injustice by mandating that drivers convicted of five DUI offenses must serve at least two years in prison before they can be paroled, and that at least three years must be served before parole on fifth and subsequent offenses.

Under state law, these offenders already have had multiple opportunities for treatment of alcohol or other drug addiction related to their crimes and, with the fourth offense conviction, they were required to complete a six-month addiction treatment program in a Department of Corrections facility in Warm Springs or Glendive before they could be paroled.

Before 2017, Montana county attorneys could ask judges to sentence multi-felony DUI offenders as as persistent felony offenders, which could mean a longer sentence. In 2017, the law was changed to narrow the definition of persistent felony offender, so DUI is no longer included.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito drafted the repeat felony offender penalties in HB534 and traveled to Helena to tell a House committee about multi-felony DUI offenders his office has prosecuted, including a woman who got felony DUIs in three Montana counties while on parole for a previous felony DUI.

In recent years, Yellowstone County has charged 70 to 100 felony DUIs annually, including about a dozen per year in which the persistent felony offender law was invoked before the law changed.

HB534, sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, is supported by the Montana County Attorneys Association and the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, but garnered few Democrats' votes. Lawmaker questions in committee hearings reflected concerns that increasing repeat felony DUI penalties would be contrary to the criminal justice reforms enacted in 2017.

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Mandatory minimum sentences are expensive for taxpayers and must be balanced with public safety benefit and potential for rehabilitating the offender. With offenders who have been convicted five times, the risk to public safety is great and the potential for reform slim. The mandatory minimums are justified. 

As Gov. Steve Bullock reviews HB534, he should consider the importance of making certain that people with 5, 7, 9 or more DUIs are taken off the road for at least two years. As attorney general, Bullock championed the 24/7 Sobriety Program, which Yellowstone and other counties are using successfully to keep many DUI offenders from driving impaired before and after sentencing. HB534 holds repeat offenders accountable while taking nothing away from the state's efforts to get DUI offenders into effective addiction treatment.

Stop the worst of the worst DUI drivers, governor. Sign HB534 into law.

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