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Backers of bill to toughen DUI punishment lament Bullock veto

BILLINGS – After Montana Gov. Steve Bullock vetoed a bill to give fifth-time DUI offenders prison time, sponsors and supporters of the bill said Monday they feel furious.

During the 2019 legislative session, freshman Republican Rep. Bill Mercer of Billings launched a bill to make prison time a part of mandatory punishment for those who get their fifth DUI. House Bill 534 would have required someone to do prison time if they received their second felony DUI. Montana law states a fourth drunken driving offense is a felony.

“Where are you going to draw the line?” said Mercer.

Just last week in Billings, a 49-year-old woman was arrested after police say she hit a pedestrian while under the influence of alcohol. Court documents stated a blood sample showed an alcohol content of nearly four times the legal limit.

Mercer’s bill passed the House with a 68-to-30 vote and in the Senate with a 28-to-22 vote.

“This seemed like a very rational point to say this is a person who’s already failed to modify behavior after four previous attempts,” said Mercer. “And the fifth and sixth DUIs are too low of threshold to require some term at state prison, then what isn’t?”

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito has the same questions when it comes to felony DUI offenders.

“They need to be dealt with, and what we currently have isn’t doing it,” said Twito. “These are the functioning drunk drivers. Their BACs aren’t around the threshold level where they’re like three, four, five times the level.”

However, Bullock said he vetoed the bill because it’s a step backward from criminal justice reform. He said in most cases, offenders are placed in an intensive facility focused on DUI offenders through the Department of Corrections. Then, that intensive program is followed by a prerelease center or release to community supervision.

Bullock called House Bill 534 “well-intentioned, but a step backward.”

The Bullock administration also cited data from the Court Administrator’s Office in the Montana Judicial Branch to back the fact that felony DUI convictions are on a four-year downward trend through evidence-based interventions.

Mercer plans to reintroduce some form of the bill again in Montana’s next legislative session in 2021.

-Reported by Andrea Lutz/MTN News

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