Butte-Silver Bow Health Department

The Butte-Silver Bow Health Department is located at 25 W. Front St.

The number of citations issued to people in Butte-Silver Bow for driving under the influence is decreasing, a trend that law enforcement officials attribute to public education and awareness and a subsequent cultural shift in people’s behaviors.

Butte-Silver Bow saw 197 DUI citations in 2017, compared to 246 citations in 2016, 235 in 2015 and 261 in 2014.

“The trend is real,” Montana Highway Patrol Capt. Gary Becker told the local DUI Task Force at a recent meeting.

Becker said that the decline in DUI citations is not due to a decrease in patrols, as the number of patrols by both the Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement Division and District III of the Highway Patrol has remained steady. If anything, those patrolling have received extensive education in what to look for when a driver is impaired.

“We’re getting better at it,” Becker said.

Becker compiles DUI statistics annually. Of the 197 DUI citations issued in 2017, 44 were issued by the Highway Patrol and 153 by the county’s Law Enforcement Division. The month of March saw the highest number of citations, with 32 issued. The month of May saw the lowest number issued, with 11.

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Butte-Silver Bow DUI statistics

Becker also released the number of citations issued in 2017 to minors in possession (MIP), with 66 issued by both the Law Enforcement Division and Highway Patrol. That compares to the 51 issued in 2016 and 68 issued in 2015, but down from the 171 issued in 2014, when the Law Enforcement Division did a major push to check identification of young people seen using alcohol, particularly at Butte’s summer festivals. Becker said that, because of that push, people under the age of 21, including those from out of town attending Butte festivals and events, learned that Butte-Silver Bow is serious about issuing MIPs.

Becker’s numbers also showed that 47 open container violations were issued in 2017; this particular citation is issued to drivers when law officers observe an open container readily accessible in the vehicle to the driver (such a citation is often issued simultaneously with a DUI). That’s compared to 53 open container citations in 2016, 28 in 2015 and 44 in 2014.

Local law enforcement is sometimes assisted by a Highway Patrol team that travels throughout the state to assist local jurisdictions. This team, comprised of five troopers and a sergeant, was recently in Butte — the additional patrols resulted in three DUI citations and 113 citations issued to those not wearing seat belts (because Montana doesn’t have a primary seat belt law, the people cited for not wearing their seat belts were pulled over for some other alleged infraction, such as running a stop sign or red light or having a missing taillight or headlight). The special Highway Patrol team will be returning to Butte for the city’s annual St. Patrick’s Day event, which can be raucous.

Becker and Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Tammy Perkins both said that people have learned that taxis and transportation alternatives such as Uber are excellent alternatives to driving while impaired, and the officers also cited these alternatives as contributing factors to the downward trend in issued DUIs. Hotels and other venues hosting parties where alcohol is served have taken to providing buses to get imbibing people to and from where they need to go, Becker said.

Linda Lowney and Laura Cross from Butte Cares also attend and facilitate the monthly DUI Task Force meetings. At the last meeting, Lowney asked Becker and Perkins whether Highway Patrol officers can stop drivers on any street, even if the street is one of local rather than state jurisdiction.

“If you can drive there, we can drive there,” said Perkins, adding that not only can Highway Patrol officers stop drivers anywhere, District III has multi-county jurisdictions beyond Butte-Silver Bow, including in Beaverhead, Anaconda-Deer Lodge, Granite, Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, Madison and Powell counties.

Becker and Perkins said both the Highway Patrol and the county Law Enforcement Division employ drug recognition experts — two with the Highway Patrol for work in Butte-Silver Bow and Anaconda-Deer Lodge, and four with the Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement Division. While all officers have DUI enforcement training, some officers have received additional training in alcohol and drug detection. But the drug recognition experts have much expertise in detecting drugged driving, with extensive training to detect physical signs of drug impairment. Becker said he was readying to send one of his officers to Arizona for an entire week to recertify for drug recognition training.

Becker said progress on DUIs in Butte-Silver Bow has been slow, but he believes the downward trend in citation issuance is here to stay. Kudos to District III of the Montana Highway Patrol and the Butte-Silver Bow Law Enforcement Division for prompting the trend, and congratulations to the general public for obviously taking note.

We’re all the safer for it.

Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.

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