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The Montana Department of Justice wants to overhaul the state’s DUI laws in the upcoming legislative session.

A 74-page bill draft, released earlier in December, would make five key changes to the state’s impaired driving laws, according to department spokesman John Barnes. The bill would:

  • Eliminate the 10-year look-back window for previous DUIs to count at sentencing, ensuring that judges tally all previous convictions, regardless of when they took place. This look-back window currently applies only to the first two DUIs.
  • Allow law enforcement to obtain a warrant for a blood draw on a first DUI. Currently they’re only allowed on a second offense, and blood evidence is more reliable for use in prosecuting, Barnes said.
  • Make the 24/7 Sobriety Program or an ignition interlock mandatory on a second or subsequent DUI. Currently, the alcohol monitoring programs are assigned at the judge’s discretion.
  • Ensure all out-of-state DUI convictions count toward the number of offenses required to suspend a driver’s license. Current loopholes allow some prior convictions not to count.
  • Institute greater penalties for a fifth or subsequent DUI. The bill would require up to 10 years in custody (the first three of which could not be suspended) on a fifth DUI, and between five and 25 years in custody (the first five of which could not be suspended) on a sixth or subsequent DUI. 

Lawmakers draft a handful of drunken driving-related bills each session, but most die in committee.

“The biggest thing about DUI legislation in Montana is it tends to be incremental,” Barnes said. “There always seems to be a lot of push-back on toughening DUI in Montana, which I think speaks to the cultural problem that we have here in terms of acceptance of DUI.”

Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 2016 rated Montana worst in the nation for its track record on drunken driving. The number of DUI offenses has gone down in the past decade in Montana, but the state still outpaces the nation for its rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities, according to the Attorney General's Office report on substance abuse

The legislation would generally result in harsher penalties for repeat drunken drivers, but the Justice Department hasn’t hammered out any projections for the number of cases the proposals would impact.

There will be a fiscal note on the bill, but the projected costs are still being determined, Barnes said. He said the legislation would also “streamline” the state’s impaired driving laws to make them simpler for attorneys and the courts to understand and apply.

“Montana’s DUI laws have been cobbled together over the course of decades,” Barnes said. “They’re scattered throughout state codes.”

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The bill draft repeals multiple sections of law and amends others, working some repealed portions into other sections of code.

The Montana County Attorneys Association supports the proposed legislation, particularly because it includes the provision stiffening penalties for a fifth or subsequent DUI. Prosecutors have sought such a change almost as soon as penalties were relaxed in 2017.

Lawmakers that year raised the bar for qualifying as a persistent felony offender. Now only sexual or violent offenses count, excluding drunken driving offenses, so prosecutors no longer have the persistent felony offender tool to boost penalties against repeat DUI offenders. 

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This has resulted in penalties that are actually less for a fifth DUI than for a fourth, according to Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito. 

Jed Fitch, MCAA president, said offenders on their fifth DUI have inevitably been through treatment already, since it’s required for a fourth DUI. Fitch said such repeat offenders are a “menace to society.”

“The only thing left to do is punish that person,” he said.

The state’s public defenders have yet to take a position on the bill draft, according to Peter Ohman, Public Defender Division Administrator with the Office of the Public Defender.

Sen. Nate McConnell, D-Missoula, who sponsored the 2017 legislation that changed the persistent felony offender laws, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

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