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Lawmakers pitch bills to enforce DUI testing

Prosecutors and other advocates for tougher drunk-driving laws
testified Thursday in favor of a bill enabling law officers to get
a warrant forcing suspects to submit to a blood or breath test
shortly after arrest, saying it closes a loophole in current state
law.

Supporters of Senate Bill 42 said nearly 3,000 drunk-driving
suspects a year refuse to submit to a breath or blood test in
Montana, often making prosecution more difficult.

SB42, sponsored by Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, gives arresting
officers the authority to get a search warrant to require a blood
or breath test from DUI suspects, regardless of whether they
consent to it.

“I think Senate Bill 42 might be one of the most important bills
that the Legislature will consider,” said Yellowstone County
Attorney Scott Twito. “It is a well-thought-out bill … this is not
going to be difficult for law enforcement to follow.”

Yet a companion bill to create court-appointed “standing masters”
in Helena to issue the warrants ran into opposition, as county
officials and a representative of county and city judges said it
imposes unnecessary costs or isn’t needed.

“We already have 160 judges in the state who can issue a warrant,”
said Larry Carver, a justice of the peace from Judith Basin County
representing the Montana Magistrates Association.

SB42 and its companion, SB40, are two of more than a dozen bills
this session designed to crack down on or help prevent drunken
driving in Montana, which has one of the highest rates in the
nation of alcohol-related traffic deaths per miles driven.

Both bills are sponsored by Shockley, who resigned his chairmanship
of the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, two days after he
pleaded guilty to having an open container of alcohol in his car.
He was pulled over in Missoula on Friday and ticketed after an
off-duty sheriff’s deputy spotted him drinking a beer-tomato-juice
mix while driving on Interstate 90.

Moments after resigning the chairmanship, Shockley appeared before
the panel Thursday to present his bills.

Shockley said he originally had the warrant proposal in one bill,
but separated them into two measures when concerns were raised
about creating the special masters.

He said it’s become common in Montana for drunk-driving suspects to
refuse to give a breath or blood test when pulled over, because
they believe it will help them beat the charge.

“If the person won’t cooperate — and the serious drunks, once they
have a ticket, they understand that cooperation is not to their
benefit — there should be a way for the officer to draw blood,”
Shockley said.

Shockley said he also plans to offer an amendment to SB42 that says
if the suspect still refuses to submit to a blood or breath test,
he or she will be found in contempt of court and jailed for 30
days.

Yet another bill coming before the Legislature would make it a
crime to refuse a breath or blood test, with penalties equivalent
to those for drunk driving. Shockley said he opposes that idea
because it violates a constitutional right to refuse to give
evidence against yourself.

Niki Zupanic of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana spoke
in support of SB42, saying it’s a “constitutionally sound
alternative for addressing this problem.” However, she said the
rights group may take issue with Shockley’s amendment and its
penalty for refusing a search.

Shockley said he proposed the 24-hour magistrate service in SB40
because he’s concerned about officers being able to contact a judge
at all hours of the night.

He also said he thought it would impose “minimal costs” to the
county where the service is located, and that funding it with state
money at $200,000 a year shouldn’t be a problem.

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