By Alan Sorensen
Montana's underage drinkers caught in the act can breathe a sigh of relief as the result of House Bill 191. They once again qualify for lower insurance rates and can usually retain their right to drive if cited for a nondriving alcohol offense since March 16.
HB 191 passed by the Montana Legislature earlier this month did away with the mandatory inclusion of minor-in-possession of alcohol (MIP) offenses on youths' permanent records. All juvenile convictions were required to be reported to the Montana Department of Justice under articles in the law that the bill did away with.
The bill also removed the mandatory confiscation of youths' driver's licenses. Many of the changes in the law affect both juvenile drivers and drivers between 18 and 21.
The old MIP law required the court to confiscate a minor's driver's license for between 30 and 90 days on a first offense. A second offense saw the confiscation go to 60 to 120 days. A third offense required the youth to give up his license between 120 days and a year.
Judges retain a discretionary authority in some cases, however, to confiscate the youthful offenders' driver's licenses.
The bill, introduced by nine legislators, is retroactive in regard to the driving records. It requires the removal of all such MIP offenses from records must be accomplished by the state within 30 days of the bill's passage.
In a telephone interview with The Daily News Thursday, Mary LaFond, bureau chief of the records and drivers' history, said her office is busy doing that right now.
All prior license confiscations are not affected retroactively, however, and must continue for the duration of the confiscation period assigned by the court.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. Judy Martz on March 16 and went into effect immediately she said. Removal of the offenses from the youths' records will put an end to what LaFond called "attendant consequences."
"It had an effect on future employment and education opportunities and their insurance premiums went up," she said.
A Havre mother said this morning that she learned her son's record has already been cleared of MIPs.
"I went to the driver examiner yesterday and my son's four MIPs have been expunged," said the woman, who wanted to remain anonymous. "I went and got him insurance. An insurance agent had quoted him coverage at $750 per month. I got him insurance for $750 every six months. That's quite a difference."
She said she hopes other parents take the time to explore the new law and the financial ramifications of the new law.
The new law, she said, "suspends all mandates for suspension or revocation on the driver's license base on the offender's age, number of prior offenses and driving or nondriving behaviors which were incident to an MIP conviction."
Before the new law, even youths who were caught with alcohol while at house parties, walking, or as vehicle passengers were subject to license confiscation. They also received a black mark on their driving record.
"Last weekend, they were removed from the summons portion of all drivers' records," LaFond said. "To complete that, the license suspensions imposed remain in the driver improvement portion of their driver record indefinitely. From this day forward we will not process those summonses."
For offenders caught behind the wheel of a vehicle, LaFond said, her office strongly recommends that law enforcement officers apply the .02 blood alcohol content law. It is, in effect, a driving-under-influence of alcohol offense for minors and does result in license confiscations and notations to offenders' driving records.
Other penalties, including fines, community service and education programs, remain in place.