After hearing concerns from civil libertarians who said Missoula’s City Council risked treading on constitutional protections with a new DUI ordinance, Councilman Dave Strohmaier is scaling back the proposal.
“Hopefully this will address some of the concerns people have,” Strohmaier says.
A spate of lethal drunk driving accidents over the past several months prompted Strohmaier, chair of the Public Health and Safety Committee, to put forward a legislative response in early February. The original ordinance made a motorist’s refusal of a drug or alcohol test within city limits a misdemeanor crime punishable by a $300 fine. The law aimed to beef up the existing penalty for refusing a test—a civil infraction punishable by a six-month driver’s license suspension.
But Strohmaier met resistance from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and others who argued his law would criminalize people for exerting a constitutional right to refuse a police search.
“Just labeling someone as a criminal for wanting to assert their Fourth Amendment right is troubling,” says Montana ACLU Public Policy Director Niki Zupanic.
The councilman says he will now introduce an amendment that keeps refusal a civil offense, but maintains the $300 penalty.
“They’re definitely moving in the right direction,” Zupanic says. “That’s much more in keeping with what courts have allowed all across the country.”
Even so, the ACLU remains troubled by the $300 fine.
“We have concerns in general with anything that coerces a person into giving up a constitutional right,” Zupanic says.
On the other side of the debate, Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir, who has supported Strohmaier’s efforts throughout, worries that watering down the ordinance will create additional legal complications the justice system can’t afford.
For example, Muir says if refusal became a crime, as Strohmaier initially proposed, it could be prosecuted alongside the DUI case. But the civil offense would require a civil proceeding, potentially creating the need for an additional day in court.
“That is my one and only concern,” Muir says.
City Council will take up the issue in a yet-to-be-scheduled Public Health and Safety Committee meeting before hitting the council floor for additional debate.