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The Yellowstone County Attorney’s Office has been filing more than 100 felony DUI cases a year. That total is even more compelling when considering that a driver’s first three DUI convictions are misdemeanors under Montana law. Unfortunately, The Gazette often carries reports of repeat offenders who have five or more DUI convictions.

All DUI offenders put the public at risk, but repeat offenders pose the greatest risks because they drive drunk habitually.

A comprehensive update of Montana’s DUI law introduced in the 2019 Legislature proposes to make the consequences of felony DUI clear and commensurate with the enormous risk to public safety if these repeat offenders get behind the wheel.

In Senate Bill 65, introduced by Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, at the request of the Montana Attorney General’s Office, the penalty range for fourth offense DUI would stay the same: 13 months to two years in prison with a requirement for the offender to complete the six-month WATCh DUI treatment program at Warm Springs or Glendive facilities as part of the sentence.

SB65 would make the penalties more severe for fifth and subsequent DUIs. The penalty range would be 5-25 years. On a fifth offense, the offender would have to serve at least three years. On subsequent offenses, the offender would have to serve at least five years.

“I wholeheartedly support the DOJ DUI bill,” Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito told The Gazette recently. “While Montana has made significant improvement in all areas of DUIs for years, DOJ’s efforts are admirable. From simplification of the DUI code, elimination of conviction lookback, and more significant possible penalties for repeat felony DUI offenders, it is a comprehensive approach for what is still a significant problem.”

Twito has been especially concerned that a 2017 law actually reduced the possible penalties that had been imposed for fifth and subsequent DUI offenses by narrowing the definition of how the Persistent Felony Offender statute can be used. The new law excluded DUI, so the worst repeat DUI offenders could not be sentenced to more than 2 years.

Reversing the effect of that 2017 law is a top priority in 2019 for the Montana County Attorneys Association.

The 74-page SB65 would make numerous other changes, including:

— When sentencing on second and third DUI offenses, judges would be required to order offender participation in monitoring programs (such as 24/7 Sobriety) and installation of an ignition interlock device on the offender’s vehicles.

— Nearly one in five people arrested for DUI refuse the breath test they are required to take as a condition of having a Montana driver’s license. To ensure that accurate evidence can be obtained, SB65 would allow law enforcement officers to get a search warrant from a judge to take a blood sample when a suspect refuses a breath test on first-time DUI arrests. Search warrants already can be obtained when drivers with previous convictions refuse a breath test.

SB65 has been assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Regier chairs. Sens. Margie MacDonald and Jen Gross of Billings serve on the committee, along with Sen. John Esp of Big Timber. We call on these area lawmakers to support the DUI law changes that will make our roads safer for everyone.

According to preliminary information from the Montana Highway Patrol, alcohol is suspected of being a factor in 63 traffic fatalities in 2018, and other drugs are suspected in 23 traffic deaths.

Curbing DUI will save lives in Montana.

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