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HAMILTON - After Darby adopted a measure to penalize people for refusing to submit to alcohol or drug testing, Win Smith had a question.

What does it say about the state of DUI laws in Montana that tiny Darby has to take the lead?

"Why is it the Legislature can't figure out how to pass that law?" asked Smith, a Ravalli County resident and Rotary Club member.

Darby's ordinance, adopted this winter, demands a $500 penalty of anyone convicted of drunken driving who refuses at the time of apprehension to take a breath alcohol test. The penalty is applied on top of any other DUI-related fines or penalties.

The measure was enacted in response to the growing number of drunken drivers - especially repeat drunken drivers - who refuse to submit to on-the-scene breath tests in the hope that, lacking test results, they'll be less likely to wind up with a DUI conviction.

The number of refusals to take the tests has gone up by 25 percent in the past four years, say local court officials.

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The Montana House of Representatives Law and Justice Interim Committee this year looked at a bill similar to the measure Darby adopted. A draft of the bill failed to make it out of the committee.

However, the committee approved 11 other bills for wider debate. Those include one to prevent youths convicted of alcohol or drug crimes from getting driver's licenses until they're 18, and one that would allow game wardens to issue citations to youths under 21 for illegal possession of drugs or alcohol.

Win and other county officials spoke about the DUI laws at a county DUI Task Force meeting.

Ravalli County Attorney George Corn said that while there are concerns about a law like Darby's surviving a challenge, he thinks it's legal.

"I'm researching it right now," he said, "and I think it would pass constitutional muster in Montana."

Rep. Ron Stoker, R-Darby, said passing a law at the state level isn't something that happens overnight, but that legislators are conscious of the debate.

"Darby's law will be challenged," he said, "and the Legislature will be watching."

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The Ravalli County DUI Task Force is forming a new legislative committee to support tougher anti-drinking laws, and a committee to get the word out about the often-hidden consequences of youth alcohol abuse - such as the fact that the parents of a youth who receives a minor in possession of alcohol citation will see their insurance rates jump.

The task force also wants to look at a proposal called "24/7" that would require habitual DUI offenders to undergo an alcohol breath test twice a day - every day - for the length of their sentences. It's being used on a trial basis in Lewis and Clark County and has been adopted statewide in South Dakota.

"It is something that gives immediate consequences if you don't stay sober," said DUI Task Force chairwoman Glenda Wiles. "If you fail, your bond is revoked and you immediately go to jail."

The tests cost about $4 each, which means the offender has to pay upward of $300 a month just in test fees. Stoker said with a looming $500 million shortfall in the state budget, a subsidy for a test like that, or payment for other more elaborate anti-DUI laws, will have a hard time finding support in Helena.

"It's going to be a very, very difficult session to balance this budget," he said.

Ravalli Republic reporter Jeff Schmerker can be reached at 363-3300 or at jeff.schmerker@ravallirepublic.com.

 

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