Under the influence 

The 2011 Legislature has taken aim at drunk driving. But Montana's drinking culture may be too much for lawmakers to take down.

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Partly to that end, Missoula County Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech has committed herself to holding DUI offenders responsible for their actions. She speaks of drunk driving as a side-effect of addiction, and as a result feels that only a sober mind can produce a turnaround in attitude. That doesn't come from forced sobriety over a few days, Orzech says, but rather from close legal supervision for a period of months.

"Ultimately, jail doesn't change behavior," Orzech says. "As a judge, generally when somebody goes to jail it's for a short time to make an impression or it's for a long time to protect the community. Jail isn't a nice place, and when people get out generally they're not better. How does jail treat an addiction? It keeps somebody from alcohol for seven days, and when they get out they're going to have the same pressure, the same no-job situation, all the same reasons they drink."

These days, Orzech jokes, she's known for her harshness in enforcing DUI penalties. And like others, she notes a professional turning point in her career that led to such a fierce stance against DUI. It's a story she's never shared before, she says, but one that illustrates how personal Montana's DUI culture can become for those charged with upholding the law.

"There's a moment," she says. "Many, many years ago, I had a young girl on her first DUI. She told me she was going to Florida for treatment, and I believed her. But she didn't go to Florida for treatment. She went across the state, and she got her second DUI, and she killed somebody. That's when it changed it for me, and that happened about 10 years ago. I said to myself, 'I have to do a better job as a judge. I have to make sure people are monitored. It's my responsibility to keep this community safe.'...That's why I do what I do."

Orzech succeeded last September in launching a separate DUI court in Missoula County. Judges across Montana already have a number of tools at their disposal, such as sweat-monitoring SCRAM bracelets or vehicle interlock devices, that allow for round-the-clock supervision. Orzech says she even goes so far as to correspond with DUI offenders she's seen in court in the past, making sure they're staying sober. But the specialized court allows her to keep closer tabs on the advancement of the offenders she sees, or "plant seeds" for a widespread cultural change, as she puts it. To date, the court has graduated four convicted DUI offenders with nine other members meeting regularly with court officials. Orzech hopes those graduates have managed to reach a turnaround point.

"We just had a graduate the other day, a young girl who's been in my court for years and really has an issue with alcohol," Orzech says. "She's been to treatment, she's been sober [for over a year] and she's moving up in her job. We had a chocolate cake with ice cream for her in court. All of us talked and cut the cake, talked about what progress everybody's making. She's on her own now, and we'll see."

click to enlarge Helena bars like Jorgenson’s become a hotbed of legislative after-hours activity during the session, with Republicans and Democrats alike seeking a break from knock-down drag-out debates. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Helena bars like Jorgenson’s become a hotbed of legislative after-hours activity during the session, with Republicans and Democrats alike seeking a break from knock-down drag-out debates.

In her 12-year career, Orzech estimates she's seen 1,800 DUI cases in court. But she does feel an attitude change is imminent for Montana. Whether that comes from her courtroom or from the Legislature's ongoing efforts to enact stricter policies, she doesn't feel she's in a position to say. Regardless of what happens in Helena, Orzech plans to continue the DUI fight as she sees fit.

"What I see the Legislature doing is just providing me with tools I can use to hold people accountable," Orzech says. "If they pass some laws that are good tools, I'll use them. If they pass some laws that are not so good tools, I won't use them. And if they pass laws that are unconstitutional, if it should come to my attention I'll declare them unconstitutional. That's my job as a judge. Whatever they do over there in Helena, they will do. Whatever I do here in Missoula to hold people accountable, I will do my best with what I have."

•••

The fact that some of the highest profile examples of alcohol abuse come from the Legislature's own membership serves to underscore the importance of a statewide change in attitude, whether or not individuals like Shockley agree there's a cultural component. But those taking their cracks at penalty enhancement admit it will take more than increasingly harsh laws to turn that attitude around.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the DUI bills are in some way after the fact," Hansen says. "They are punishments, they are a 'what do we do to people who won't change their own culture?' But I think the Legislature taking a real hard look at this issue will start a broader discussion on changing that culture."

Jent sees significant promise in strengthening treatment options. During the interim committee's review of the epidemic, he says, legislators found that fourth DUI offenders going through the WATCh Program weren't getting fifths, something he believes is a strong indicator of success in curbing repeat DUI behavior. The 24/7 sobriety program bill, carried by Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, won popular support in the House in late January and now rests before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The issue remains at the forefront of Blewett's mind as the clock ticks toward closing and the crowd at Miller's continues to indulge. Yes, the bar gets "substantially busier" during the session, he says. And some of Montana's legislative officials may be in an altered state of mind on this particular evening. But they're adults, and as such are able to make their own decisions on the basis of experience or responsibility. Each, as a legislator, understands the potential ramifications a legislature-linked alcohol charge will have during this particular session. The issue is now under such an extreme microscope that any misstep in judgment means damage not just to personal reputations but to political progress; Shockley recognized the fact after his open container ticket, and promptly forfeited his leadership position on the very Senate committee responsible for reviewing this session's DUI proposals.

It should come as no surprise, either, that political officials descend on joints like Miller's. Bars in Montana remain as much a public hall as county courthouses or city council chambers. They're home to the same politically charged discussions and issue-oriented debates. There's no problem with that, per se, as long as the dialogue continues and responsible choices are made—both at closing time and the conclusion of the session.

"It's the buzz that wins," says Jent, using an appropriate turn of phrase for the topic, "in what people think and feel."

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