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Billings judge slams loophole in DUI sentencing law

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William Dean Grussing

William Dean Grussing

Calling a section of the state's sentencing laws "counterintuitive," a district judge said Thursday that she had no choice but to impose a standard sentence for one of Billings' most prolific drunken-drivers.

Judge Susan Watters said she was bound by the sentencing law in the case of William Dean Grussing, whom she ordered to spend 13 months in state custody, followed by five years of probation, for his 12th DUI conviction.

Watters and Deputy County Attorney Robert Spoja said several factors determined an appropriate sentence in the case, but a state law that sets sentencing standards was the main barrier between Grussing and a lengthy prison term.

Watters reviewed the statute during Grussing's sentencing hearing, explaining that a maximum sentence of five years in custody can be imposed for a felony DUI conviction in cases where a defendant previously attended a treatment program while incarcerated for a DUI offense.

But, as in Grussing's case, a defendant who did not previously participate in a state Department of Corrections treatment program can be sentenced only to a standard term of 13 months, followed by a maximum probation of five years.

"It seems counterintuitive to me that someone who completes treatment could get five years, but someone who doesn't gets a more lenient sentence," said Watters, noting that participation in state treatment programs is voluntary. "That doesn't make sense to me, and I would encourage the Legislature to take a look at that provision."

Spoja, the prosecutor, called the statute a "gaping hole" in the effort to punish repeat DUI offenders.

Spoja also said that because Grussing's previous felony conviction occurred more than five years ago, prosecutors were prevented from having him designated a persistent felony offender. That designation carries a sentence enhancement of between five and 100 years in prison.

State law also sets a maximum fine of $5,000 for a felony DUI. Grussing was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine.

Grussing, 55, spoke briefly before he was sentenced. He said he was looking forward to treatment, which wasn't offered to him while he was imprisoned for his previous DUI conviction, in 2002.

Grussing also said he had 9 1/2 years of sobriety before he was arrested last year.

"I'm very sorry for drinking and driving at that point," he told the judge.

Grussing was arrested and charged for his 12th DUI in June 2011. After his arraignment, Grussing was released from the county jail on a $25,000 bond.

He later pleaded guilty to the charge. But while the case was still pending, Grussing was arrested again last June and charged with his 13th DUI.

At his arraignment, Watters set Grussing's bond at $200,000, and he has remained in the county jail.

A Jan. 22 trial date has been set for the pending felony DUI.

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