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County attornies favor tough DUI laws


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Last year, the Blaine County undersheriff pulled over a vehicle because he suspected that the driver was intoxicated. Indeed, the driver was charged with driving under the influence. And the officer decided to do a check on the records of the passengers in the vehicle. The five people in the car had a total of 17 DUI convictions under their belts. "I was blown away by that," said Blaine County Attorney Don Ranstrom. "It is astounding." Ranstrom said that incident shows how pervasive drunken driving is in parts of our society. And, he said, it shows how difficult it will be to crack down on drunken driving. A Montana legislative committee is holding hearings this week on the issue. The Law and Justice Committee is looking at ways to reduce the level of drunken driving in the state, which many law enforcement officials say is among the highest in the nation. Many Hi-Line county officials say the most effective measure the state could take would be to make criminal the refusal to submit to breath tests. Under Montana law, failure to comply with a police officer's request is a civil violation and can result in the suspension of the driver's license. In many states, it is a criminal offense. "There's no real penalty for refusal," said Hill County Attorney Gina Dahl, who estimated that half of the people Suspected for driving under the influence don't agree to submit to the test. "I think it should be at least a misdemeanor," she said. Repeat drunken drivers "get pretty sophisticated" when they are stopped by police, said Liberty County Attorney Hugh Brown, who said tougher penalties would be a good tool in fighting drunken driving. Dahl said she hasn't decided if drunken driving should be a felony on the second or third offense, but the present Montana law is too lenient. The first three DUI offenses are misdemeanors. On the fourth offense, a driver is charged with a felony. "I think waiting until the fourth offense is too late," she said. Ranstrom said the cost of making the second and third offenses a felony would be considerable. The best long-range solution would be to cut down on underage binge drinking, he said. Kids are drinking at a young age, he said. Many start drinking to excess at age 12 or 13. "If people start drinking at age 14, they are late bloomers," he said. "There's no social drinking," he said. "They drink to excess and do stupid things." There have been several highly publicized cases in Montana of defendants racking up eight or nine driving under the influence arrests. Dahl also called for more giving judges more discretion in sentencing repeat offenders convicted of repeat felony offenses. In cases where people are not remorseful, the judge should be allowed to order longer sentences. "This is a dangerous offense for families and for our communities," she said. "These people are driving a loaded weapon," she said. The committee has received a variety of information and proposals. State Supreme Court Justice Mike McGrath, a former attorney general, pitched a new ballot measure Tuesday that would use alcohol tax money for prevention and treatment efforts, while lawmakers cooked up ideas of their own for cracking down on drunken driving. He said it would cost about $5 million a year, something that concerned some lawmakers because of the state's tight fiscal situation. But a University of Montana economist said alcohol abuse costs the state's economy about $511 million annually,. We have to remember that these costs are the financial ones and do not include the toll on families and communities in psychological and human suffering," said Steve Seninger, with UM's Bureau of Economic Research. "Each year as a consequence of drinking and driving, children die, families are torn apart and people's lives are shattered." Another UM study presented to the committee showed that repeat offenders who are serving time in state prisons feel that tougher laws might have deterred them from driving drunk. But most feel that treatment was a better way of fighting abuse than incarceration, said a report by Timothy Conley, a professor of social services. Mandatory treatment after the second or third DUI would deter further drunken driving incidents, the inmates told Conley. (Associates Press material was used in this report.)


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