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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The Montana Legislature's history with DUI is long and well documented, indicating that even elected officials aren't above the pervasive culture of alcohol abuse. Shockley is far from the first to get popped; former Kalispell Sen. Greg Barkus made headlines in August 2009 for his role in a drunken boating accident on Flathead Lake. Barkus, whose BAC registered nearly twice the legal limit of 0.08, crashed a speedboat into the rocks along the lake's shoreline after attending a party at a Lakeside restaurant. All five passengers, including U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, were injured. Rehberg staffer Dustin Frost remained in a coma at Kalispell Regional Medical Center for 10 days.

Two years prior to Barkus' storied accident, Sen. Scott Boggio, R-Red Lodge, was arrested for DUI in Helena in the midst of the 2007 legislative session. Boggio's BAC registered at 0.14 percent, and his passenger at the time—Rep. Elsie Arntzen, R-Billings—was a member of the Yellowstone County DUI Task Force. They'd borrowed the vehicle from a third legislator, Rep. Harry Klock, R-Harlowton.

Perhaps the most troubling DUI tragedy to come out of the Legislature in the past decade occurred in August 2001 when Shane Hedges, former policy director for Gov. Judy Martz, killed House Majority Leader Paul Sliter, R-Somers, in a late-night car crash outside Helena. Medical records from the Montana Department of Justice reveal Hedges had been driving with a BAC of 0.15 percent, and Sliter's BAC was posthumously recorded at 0.16 percent. Witness testimony later indicated the two had spent the evening drinking at Marysville House, a steak restaurant 25 miles from Helena.

Sliter's death generated a nationwide media storm unlike Montana's more recent Legislature-related DUI cases. Articles in The New York Times and The Denver Post linked Martz to a suspected cover-up, and Martz admitted months later that she had washed Hedges' bloody clothes when he arrived at the governor's residence immediately after the accident. She claimed she had no idea until days later that the clothes were evidence. Police reports even cite possible evidence tampering at the crime scene involving a number of beer cans and bottles.

Even Missoula's local government officials have something of a tarnished record. In late February 2010, local police arrested City Councilwoman Pam Walzer, a Democrat from Ward 2, for driving with a BAC of 0.08. Walzer's DUI came at the most inopportune time, as the council had only recently begun discussing stricter DUI laws including a fine for refusing a breathalyzer (Walzer voluntarily submitted to a breath test when pulled over). She refused to step down from her position, instead apologizing and vowing to continue her work for the city.

The incident goes to show just how pervasive the DUI problem in Montana has become.

click to enlarge Missoula County Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech estimates she’s seen 1,800 DUI cases in her courtroom during her 12-year career. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula County Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech estimates she’s seen 1,800 DUI cases in her courtroom during her 12-year career.

"A lot of folks still think the roads are theirs and they can do anything they want," says Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen. "'By God, this is our drinking state.' So I think we may have a bit more of a percentage-wise difficulty with it than other areas...I would speculate that well over half, maybe as much as three quarters, of what we do as cops has some relationship to drinking—obviously drinking and driving, a lot of our wrecks. It's pretty rare you go to problems at bars where they haven't been drinking, pretty rare you go to family beefs where they haven't been drinking."

Tragic DUI stories hit close to home in Missoula County—far away from the buzz of the session. Officials have long recognized the need for a harder approach to drunk driving. Spurred by personal experience, locals have dedicated themselves to a daily battle against alcohol abuse on our roads.

Ibsen, a 39-year veteran of law enforcement in Missoula, campaigned hard for sheriff last year on the premise of taking a stronger stand against DUI. A Montana arrest record is now tacked above his desk in the county courthouse, a personal reminder of why he's focused his office's efforts on drinking and driving. The man pictured is David James Bugni, a Butte resident arrested in September 2009 for causing a fatal car wreck on Interstate 90 while under the influence of alcohol. The woman Bugni later pleaded guilty to killing was Judy Wang, Ibsen's wife and an influential Missoula city prosecutor. The loss, Ibsen says, has made DUI enforcement a significantly more personal matter.

"Up until that time, I thought that I understood the feelings of the victims' families and the victims," Ibsen says. "All of a sudden we find we aren't immune and our families aren't immune, because it puts a real picture on it...It puts a more personal face on it, it really does."

Ibsen doesn't mask the fact that he feels Montana's laws are inadequate. Moreover, he's heard directly from felony DUI offenders that the current penalties don't do enough to prevent drunk drivers from developing a pattern of behavior. Members of the state's six-month Warm Springs Addictions Treatment and Change (WATCh) Program have told Ibsen that had they faced more stringent punishments on their first DUI, they might not have reached their third, fourth or fifth conviction. That's why Ibsen supports legislative attempts like Hansen's that seek to curb drunk driving early on; a binder on his windowsill contains copies of scores of bills from the session, complete with status notes he updates as often as possible. But the lengthier jail-times and alternative treatment options now being discussed aren't going to solve the problem on their own, Ibsen says.

"Somewhere along the line society has to figure out a way to collectively say, 'You as the drunk driver, you are a pariah,'" Ibsen says. "How many times when you were a teenager did you know friends who went out, got hammer drunk, got home and called you in the morning to say, 'God dang, I got so drunk last night. I don't even remember how I got home'? And everybody laughs and jokes about it because they made it home. We need society to get to a point where when your buddy calls you and says that, you say, 'You dirty, rotten SOB. How could you do that?' And basically shun them."

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