Drunk driving 

City targets DUI loophole

In the wake of recent high-profile drunk-driving tragedies, Ward 1 City Councilman Dave Strohmaier is proposing a citywide law that would make it tougher for people to evade charges of driving under the influence.

"It's incumbent upon us to act," Strohmaier says.

Those suspected of driving under the influence who refuse a police officer's request to submit to a sobriety test currently face a six-month suspension of their driver's license, as mandated by state law. That law makes it difficult to prosecute people because law enforcement can't obtain physical evidence to support drunk driving charges.

Strohmaier wants to tack on an additional penalty to encourage people to take sobriety tests. If the ordinance passes, it would make refusal of a drug or alcohol test within city limits a misdemeanor punishable by a $300 fine for the first offense.

"What we're doing is adding a monetary fine that might be a little more incentive," Strohmaier says.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the legality of criminalizing refusal to submit to testing, but because the Montana Constitution includes stronger protections relating to police searches, Missoula's ordinance might not fly.

"You're punishing the guy for exerting his constitutional right," says Bitterroot defense attorney and Republican legislator Jim Shockley, who's also a member of a legislative interim committee reviewing possible statewide DUI law changes. "Is that a voluntary search?"

City Attorney Jim Nugent disagrees with Shockley's legal rationale. He argues that because the state Legislature has been slow to implement laws discouraging drunk driving, it's imperative that city officials tackle the problem.

"It's time to start stepping up and saying this is unacceptable behavior," Nugent says.

The Public Health and Safety Committee plans to take up the issue Feb 17. From there, the council will solicit public opinion during a hearing that will likely happen sometime in March.

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