Montana Legislators Push for Tougher DUI Laws

Anyone who follows the news in Montana knows that DUI laws are near the top of the legisture’s agenda for this session. The Flathead Beacon details the proposals by Kalispell Representative Steve Lavin to toughen DUI laws in Flathead County and the rest of Montana. One of his proposals would require repeat drunken drivers to submit to breath tests, twice a day, to prevent them from drinking. For those convicted to two or more DUIs in Montana, these tests (ideally 12 hours apart) would be mandatory. Those who fail the test could be subject to arrest and jail. The idea is based on programs which have been instituted in South Dakota and in Lewis and Clark County.

The bill requires that offenders pay for the testing themselves. According to the article, this would come to about $2 per test. But I have to wonder how these figures are calculated. If every resident of Flathead County who has been convicted of two or more DUIs was required to visit the Sheriff’s office twice a day for UI test, I believe the impact would be very significant. The cost of an individual test may be about $2. But how much will it cost the County in terms of man power to supervise and administrate. Will the $2 cover the hiring of additional personnel? I doubt it.

As the article points out, cries to amend Montana DUI laws are a common theme in every legislative session. But the tragedies of the last year may finally result in some major changes.

SCRAM Bracelet

SCRAM stands for Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor. It continuously monitors your sweat for the presence of alcohol to see if you’ve been drinking. When it detects alcohol, it notifies authorities that you are in violation. In Montana, it can be used to help monitor repeat DUI offenders. But, because the science it relies on is fallible, there should be limits to its use.

Montana is one of 46 states using SCRAM technology. The SCRAM bracelet has become a typical part of DUI Court treatment programs, like the Kalispell Municipal DUI Court. The cost of using the bracelet is put on the offender, but often keeps them out of jail. Nationwide, the cost ranges from $12-$15 per day.

But the technology used by SCRAM bracelets is not perfect, and should not be relied on as the sole evidence used to send someone to jail. As a tool to encourage sobriety, and help Court monitor a defendants treatment, the bracelet can be beneficial to everyone involved.

Kalispell DUI Court

Kalispell Municipal Court operates the only DUI Court in Flathead County. DUI Courts are an attempt to reduce drunk driving by habitual offenders who are not typically affected by education or public safety efforts, nor by traditional legal sanctions. A DUI Court is optional and up to the defendant. If a person chooses to use the DUI Court, he or she enters into a contract that allows the Court to impose long-term changes in behavior by treatment of underlying substance abuse issues.

Treatment for chemical dependency is a major part of the DUI Court approach. It typically involves the SCRAM bracelet for 30 to 90 days, urine analysis, EtG blood testing, and frequent breath testing at court appearances, home visits, and treatment sessions.

A progressive system of incentives and sanctions discourages continued alcohol use by increasing accountability and access to other services. Ideally, this helps the defendant achieve sobriety, learn pro-social behaviors, and become a productive member of society.

Repeat offenders are the primary target of Montana DUI Courts and the Kalispell DUI Court in particular. Kalispell’s Court is overseen by Kalispell Municipal Court Judge Heidi Ulbricht and held in her courtroom at Kalispell City Hall. It has been a Montana DUI Court since 2008 when the program began in the Flathead Valley.

Helping Drunk Drivers?

As a Montana criminal defense attorney and DUI defense lawyer, I often get asked how I can justify what I do. The person who asks this question always seems to think that I am making the world a more dangerous place for Montana drivers, by ensuring that dangerous people aren’t punished for their drunk driving. The answer to that question is complex, and has a lot to do about my role in a larger system.

That’s why I was glad to see Justin McShane’s post on the PA DUI Blog, which I think is a terrific answer to a tough question. Justin writes:

Please keep in mind this important fact, I do not make the decisions about who is guilty and not guilty of a crime.  Judges and juries make these decisions.  My only job is to present the facts of the case and ensure that the prosecution has met its burden of proof of guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  I have tried hundreds of DUI cases and not once has a judge dismissed a case just because they liked me.  Every single case that has been dismissed, withdrawn or found not guilty, has been because of a legal issue that warrants that action.

In reality, defense attorneys work hard to protect their clients from false prosecution.  If you doubt the dark reality of false prosecutions, please take a look at the Innocence Project and see how many people have been exonerated.  The nature of DUI cases and the heavy reliance on intangible evidence makes these cases especially prone to mistakes.

These are the things I try to remind people of when I’m accosted for what I do. Thankfully, any legal charges (especially for DUI), must be proven in a Court of law. My job is to represent my clients in the best way possible to make sure all their rights are protected and the state plays fair.

I sleep just fine at night, thank you very much.

Drunk Driving in Kalispell

If you are arrested for Drunk Driving in Kalispell, Montana, you could find yourself in any one of a number of different courts. If you were arrested by Kalispell City Police for DUI within Kalispell city limits, you will likely be charged in Kalispell City Court with Judge Heidi Ulbricht. If you are arrested by County or State Officers, like the Flathead County Sheriff’s Department or the Montana Highway Patrol, you will be tried in Flathead County Court, meaning either Flathead Justice Court or Flathead District Court.

Almost certainly, the initial appearance for a DUI will be in Justice Court. At this hearing, you will be advised of your rights and often enter a plea of guilty or not-guilty. I almost-always recommend that people plead not-guilty at this stage.

Whether your charges are a misdemeanor DUI or a felony DUI will determine where your case goes from there. Misdemeanor DUIs are tried in Justice Court, while felony DUIs take place in District Court. For a standard DUI, whether your charges are misdemeanor or felony depend on the number of past convictions for DUI you have. A first, second, and third DUI in Montana is a misdemeanor offense. A fourth or subsequent DUI in Montana is a felony.

It is important to realize that Drunk Driving charges can have lasting effects on your life and should be treated very seriously. While it may be tempting to quickly plead guilty and have the whole affair over with, the quick fix now may haunt you for the rest of your life.

I offer a free initial consultation for people charged with DUI in Montana, and would be happy to discuss your case with you at no charge. Please consider calling me today at (406) 752-6373.

Barkus Pleads No Contest to Boating Under the Influence

Under a recently reached plea agreement, Kalispell state Sen. Greg Barkus will plead no contest to felony criminal endangerment for his part in the August 2009 boat crash on Flathead Lake that injured five people.

The plea agreement sets a 3 year deferred sentence and dismisses the other two felony charges of negligent vehicular assault. Before it becomes final Judge John McKeon of Malta must approve it.

Tthe deferred sentence could end in18 months if there are no violations. Also, Barkus will be required to pay the state $4,000 in restitution.

The agreement is signed by Barkus, Glazier and Flathead County Attorney Ed Corrigan. The original charges against Barkus, stemming from allegations that he was Boating Under the Influence of Alcohol, carried a possible sentence of 30 years in prison.