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Bill to toughen DUI penalties working its way through the MT Legislature

Posted at 5:28 PM, Apr 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-05 19:28:47-04

MISSOULA — We are continuing our look at Montana’s drunk driving laws and if they are effective enough to keep us safe on the road.

Data from the Montana Department of Justice from 2019 shows that 58% of all fatalities were the result of impaired driving. If there’s any good news here, it’s that that number is down from 64% from the year before. Still, as a state, our track record for drunk driving deaths is dismal.

MTN News recently told you about a bill introduced by Florence State Representative Sharon Greef that would have imposed more penalties for a second DUI conviction. The measure was tabled in the House Judiciary Committee but there's another piece of legislation that is still alive in Helena.

Republican Representative Bill Mercer of Billings is sponsoring House Bill 115 that he believes could keep people who are constantly driving drunk off the roads by requiring prison time and giving judges more sentencing options.

“And I'm hopeful that we will end up getting a mandatory minimum punishment imposed. But this time, we’ve attached it to a seventh DUI offense,” Mercer explained. “And some people are going to listen to that and say ‘wow.’ It’s ludicrous to think that that’s the only time which we are assured someone is going to get a term that assigns them to prison. “I will say the rest of the bill is designed to give the courts more flexibility for the fifth and sixth offense, so judges are going to have more tools under the bill than they have right now.”

Mercer told MTN News that about 70% of those who get one DUI conviction never get another but he added there are 50-to-60 people a year in our state who are getting a fifth and sixth conviction -- or even more.

Drunk driving laws are often complicated and there are things like costs and civil liberties to be considered. It is not an issue that’s being ignored but it is one where many feel that as a state, we have not figured out the answer yet.

“This is a huge problem, and it seems like every session we spent a significant amount of time talking about what should we be doing differently yet the arc of that curve is really not being affected,” Mercer said. “And I am certainly not saying that just because we’re going to be sending this class of repeat offenders to prison that this problem is going to go away."

“I think it is part of the answer and we must continue to try to do more in the way of public service announcements more in the way of treatment court options and tough messaging I think for people who are getting a second and a third in a way," Mercer continued. "Obviously whatever we have been doing has not been working up to this point,” Mercer concluded.

The last time he sponsored a similar bill, it made it to Governor Steve Bullock's desk and was vetoed. The governor said at the time it was a well-intentioned bill but was a step backward, costly and could limit treatment options for offenders.

Mercer’s bill is continuing to work its way through the current legislative session in Helena. We’ll keep track of the measure to see how far it goes.