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Tonight, Missoula's full City Council will take up an ordinance that, if approved, will make it a misdemeanor offense to refuse an alcohol test - a crime punishable by a $500 fine.

That, of course, would be on top of the six-month drivers license suspension already required by the state. But that punishment alone has not been enough to deter most persistent drunken drivers, many of whom simply continue to drive with a suspended license.

The combined threat of losing one's driving privileges, gaining a criminal record and having to shell out a sizable chunk of money ought to convince a lot more drunken drivers to submit to a breath test after being pulled over by a police officer.

It would certainly help save the city time and taxpayer money that is currently being used to prosecute drunken drivers who use the lack of concrete evidence to fight the legal system, often succeeding in bucking the charges or at the very least, pleading them down.

"People are escaping consequences by employing this practice of wrangling through the legal system, and it starts from the moment they refuse the breath test," Missoula's Chief of Police Mark Muir was reported saying in a Missoulian article last week. Not surprisingly, Muir is one of the ordinance's many supporters.

The proposal introduced by Ward 1 City Council member and Public Health and Safety Committee chairman Dave Strohmaier has been under discussion for weeks now. At one point it was even suggested that the ordinance be changed to make breath-test refusal a civil offense instead of a criminal one, a change that would have weakened what was shaping up to be an effective deterrent. Fortunately, it was shot down.

The council committee, in fact, took further steps to strengthen the ordinance, increasing the first-offense fine from $300 to $500.

All that remains to be done is for City Council to pass this ordinance, with the full support of Missoulians, so that it can be put into effect as soon as possible.

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