Highway Patrol lobbies legislators to crack down on first-time DUI offenders

Montana Highway Patrol Sgt. Kurt Sager demonstrates for legislators part of a field sobriety test on a participant, tracking his eye movements. (Shaylee Ragar/UM Legislative News Service)

(UM Legislative News Service) As Montana lawmakers consider overhauling the state’s DUI laws, the Montana Highway Patrol wants to dispel myths about blood alcohol levels.

This week, the Highway Patrol hosted a demonstration with live intoxicated volunteers to show just how much alcohol it actually takes to exceed legal limits.

Monday’s event included four volunteers from Highway Patrol who drank a substantial amount within two hours, and then were given a field sobriety test, including a walk-and-turn test. It proved to be tricky for some.

MHP Sergeant Kurt Sager says the event’s aim was to show lawmakers that someone who has one or two drinks at dinner will not have had enough to be charged with a DUI, but that it takes substantial drinking to reach a .08 BAC, the legal limit.

That, he says, is key in understanding why a section of Senate Bill 65, which would allow law enforcement to take a blood sample using a warrant on a first offense, is important to decrease drunk driving in the state.

“Well 72 percent of Montana’s DUIs are first-offense DUIs, so that’s an issue we need to address,” Sager said.

Under current statute, law enforcement officers cannot apply for a blood sample warrant for a suspect of DUI until the second offense, which Sager says sometimes leads to costly court battles without hard evidence.   

Participant Terie Moseman says she volunteered because she wants increased protections for her kids driving on Montana’s roads, and wants to help raise awareness about the issue any way she can. Moseman says she doesn’t drink often and was pretty wobbly during the field test.  

“Well I thought I was doing pretty well, but then I kind of wasn’t,” Moseman said.

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is sponsoring SB 65 and says the bill will not only address drunk driving, but will make the law clearer and easier to interpret.  

“DUI code is screwing all over the Montana code book,” Regier said.

This bill also increases penalties for aggravated DUIs, and lowers the legal limit of alcohol for taxi or Uber drivers. Regier said first-time offenders often correct their own behavior, but continual offenders need to be kept off the roadways.

“They’re really a menace to society,” Regier said.

Regier says the committee added amendments to the bill to include more treatment options for DUI offenders. It passed out of committee Tuesday on an 8-2 vote and now moves to the full Senate for debate.  

Shaylee Ragar is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association, the Montana Newspaper Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.