Twenty-four people were killed on Montana roads between Jan. 1 and April 9. Alcohol use is suspected of being a factor in seven of those fatalities. Use of other drugs is suspected in nine, according information from the Montana Highway Patrol. During 2018, according to MHP data, alcohol was a factor in 63 fatalities and other drugs factored in 23 traffic deaths.
Driving under the influence kills Montanans more frequently that other Americans. The DUI death toll in our state isn't as bad as it once was, but remains a terrible source of preventable tragedy.
That's why our DUI laws need reform. Senate Bill 65 aims to hold all offenders accountable, secure the most accurate evidence in every case, steer offenders to effective addiction treatment sooner and to make penalties more severe for offenders who persist in driving drunk.
One loophole that SB65 would close is the ability of DUI suspects to avoid providing a breath or blood sample that will show whether or not they have an illegal level of intoxicating alcohol or other drugs in their system. Montana requires drivers to consent to a lawfully requested breath test as a condition of keeping their driver's license. However, many DUI suspects still refuse, knowing that the scientific evidence of a breath test showing 0.08 percent blood alcohol or higher — or the presence of THC from marijuana — will increase the likelihood of a conviction.
In 2018, Billings police made 550 DUI arrests, according to the department's annual report. Among those arrested, 269 people — 40% — refused to take a breath test.
Refusing a breath test when legally stopped for DUI isn't a crime; it's an administrative violation that results in a license suspension.
Several years ago, the Montana Legislature took an important step toward holding drivers accountable for impaired driving by allowing law officers to obtain search warrants for a suspect's blood sample if he had refused a breath test. But the search warrant law can only be used for suspects who already have at least one DUI conviction.
Senate Bill 65, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, at the request of the Department of Justice, recognizes that drunken and drugged drivers are using this legal loophole to avoid a first DUI conviction.
In Montana, the first three DUI offenses are misdemeanors. The fourth offense is a felony with a penalty that requires the offender to complete a drug treatment program in prison at Warm Springs or Glendive.
Two years ago, the possible penalty for fifth and subsequent DUI offenses was reduced when a massive justice reform bill narrowed the definition of "persistent felony offenders" who can receive longer sentences. SB65 would require five-time offenders to serve at least three years in prison before they could be paroled. It originally required sixth- and subsequent offenses penalties to include at least five years in prison without parole. The latest version of the bill has changed five years to one year. That needs to be changed back.
Senate Bill 65 passed the Senate 39-10, but still needs House approval.
The route to traffic safety must include DUI laws that are clear and free of loopholes that allow the worst offenders to keep driving drunk. SB65 will hold offenders accountable and prevent them from becoming killers on Montana roads.