Gov. Steve Bullock restored Montana law officers' discretion in making disorderly conduct arrests and made certain misdemeanor shoplifters subject to arrest by allowing House Bill 421 to become law this week.
HB421 was one of several 2019 bills introduced to address unintended consequences of the major justice reform law enacted in 2017. Among many other things, that law removed the possibility of arrest or jail from some misdemeanor offenses, so officers can no longer book first-time offenders at the county jail and the maximum penalty for stealing anything worth less than $1,500 is a $500 fine.
Not coincidentally, shoplifting reports increased in Billings over the past two years. Retailers reported frequent incidents of shoplifters using emergency exits and loading nearly $1,500 in merchandise into waiting getaway vehicles.
Meanwhile, police could no longer arrest disorderly conduct suspects unless they were already threatening someone's safety. That constraint resulted in incidents of a suspect cited for disorderly conduct getting into more trouble in the same location shortly after getting the first ticket.
With HB421 becoming law, officers will again have discretion to arrest and remove suspects from incidents such as bar fights before they actually hurt themselves or someone else.
The 2017 justice reforms sought to ensure that only people who must be in jail or prison are incarcerated. The tweaks to theft and disorderly conduct statutes won't result in larger numbers of misdemeanor offenders filling our jail because it's already full with felony offenders.
However, police will be able to remove drunken and threatening individuals, take them to jail and make a record of their arrest. Likewise, those bold thieves who trigger the store's emergency system while making an exit with stolen merchandise will again face the possibility of arrest and jail — even if the loot is only worth $1,499.
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Bullock chose to allow this reasonable revision to become law without his signature. It came to his desk with virtually no support from legislators of his party. We appreciate Bullock for looking beyond the party-line votes and listening to the concerns of Montana businesses and peace officers.
5-time DUI veto
Unfortunately, Bullock vetoed another urgently needed change in the 2017 justice reform. House Bill 534 would have mandated minimum prison sentences for offenders with five or more DUI convictions.
In his veto statement, Bullock said "there is no evidence that longer sentences correlate to reduced recidivism for DUI offenders." However, HB534 targeted only five-time and subsequent offenders who are obviously at high risk to drive impaired again. These drunk and drugged drivers have already had the opportunity for the treatment and other preventive interventions Bullock cites. They have failed to stop their dangerous driving habits.
HB534 would have taken away Department of Corrections discretion to release five-time offenders in less than two years. Perhaps that's why the DOC opposed the bill in the Senate hearing. The DOC certainly can tailor sentences to be appropriate for the individual offender, as Bullock's veto statement said, but the department is also under intense pressure to release inmates from our full prisons.
HB534 was a priority for the Montana County Attorneys Association, drafted by Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and sponsored by Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings.
The five-and-more DUI offenders are relatively few in number, but every one is a risk behind the wheel. The 2021 Legislature should revisit penalties for repeat felony DUI and close this lethal loophole.