As of Nov. 19, the Montana Highway Patrol had logged 52 traffic deaths so far this year in which alcohol use was suspected to be a factor and 18 deaths in which other drugs were suspected.
Over Thanksgiving week, four more traffic deaths occurred in which investigators suspect alcohol was involved.
The number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities actually had decreased in Montana. Used to be that the majority of fatal crashes in our state involved alcohol. In 2016, just over half were alcohol-related. In 2017 and so far this year, the number of deaths had decreased overall and the portion related to alcohol is about a third instead of half. Progress had been made, yet dozens of people died this year in crashes where drivers were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.
Montana still has work to do to make our roads and streets safe from DUI.
In addition to the terrible loss of lives, DUI results in injury, disability, trauma and pain, lost workdays and property damage.
Montana’s DUI laws are designed to hold offenders accountable, but the worst repeat offenders can be the most difficult to sufficiently sanction. In 2017, a wide-ranging justice reform law did away with the option for judges to make sentences longer for “persistent” offenders — unless the case involved sex crimes or violence. That change meant people convicted of a fifth DUI offense are subject to a maximum sentence that is less than the sentence for fourth offense DUI. This doesn’t make sense.
The Montana County Attorneys Association is proposing to institute longer offenses for fifth and subsequent DUI convictions. Those offenses are felonies committed after an offender has already gone through the Department of Corrections felony DUI treatment program that law requires for fourth-offense DUI.
Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito helped draft proposed legislation that would require fifth-offense DUI to carry a minimum of three years in prison and mandate a minimum of five years for subsequent offenses.
Mandatory minimum sentences are expensive for taxpayers and need to be balanced with the public safety benefit and the potential for rehabilitating the offender. In the case of offenders who have been convicted of five or more DUIs, the risk to public safety is great and the potential for reform slim. The mandatory minimums are justified. We call on our lawmakers to support this legislation, which is one of the priorities for the Montana County Attorneys Association.
In Yellowstone County, several dozen felony DUIs a year have been charged in recent years. Each one of these offenders is a tremendous risk to public safety. Montana research indicates that habitual drunken drivers drive drunk hundreds of times between arrests.
Meanwhile, the Montana Attorney General’s Office is drafting legislation that would overhaul the state’s DUI laws.
“Current codes are a scattered hodgepodge put together over decades,” Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said. “Our changes would simplify and streamline the code so it’s easier for judges and attorneys to understand and apply. In addition, we close a number of loopholes.”
The DOJ draft legislation would:
• Eliminate the 10-year look-back window. There will be no time limit for a judge to look back and count prior offenses.
• Allow blood-draw warrants on first-time DUI. Blood evidence is much more reliable for successful prosecution of DUI.
• Make the 24/7 Sobriety Program or an ignition interlock mandatory on second or subsequent DUI. Currently, it’s at the judge’s discretion.
• Allow DUI convictions from other states to count in sentencing under Montana law.
Montana has started to curb the terrible toll of DUI. The 2019 Legislature should keep our state moving toward safer roads by updating laws to hold repeat offenders accountable.