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By Shaylee Ragar and Tim Pierce
UM Legislative News Service University of Montana School of Journalism 

Lawmakers Weigh Bill on DUI


February 20, 2019

As Montana lawmakers consider overhauling the state's DUI laws, the Montana Highway Patrol wants to dispel myths about blood alcohol levels.

Last week, the Highway Patrol hosted a demonstration for lawmakers to show just how much alcohol it actually takes to be beyond legal limits.

The event included four volunteers from Highway Patrol who drank a substantial amount within two hours, and then were given a field sobriety test, including a walk-and-turn test. It proved to be tricky for some.

Participant Terie Moseman says she volunteered because she wants increased protections for her kids driving on Montana's roads, and wants to help raise awareness about the issue any way she can. Moseman says she doesn't drink often and was pretty wobbly during the field test.

"Well I thought I was doing pretty well, but then I kind of wasn't," Moseman said.

MHP Sergeant Kurt Sager says the event's aim was to show lawmakers that someone who has one or two drinks at dinner will not have had enough to be charged with a DUI. But, that it takes substantial drinking to reach a .08 BAC, the legal limit.

That, he says, is key in understanding why a section of Senate Bill 65, which would allow law enforcement to take a blood sample using a warrant on a first offense, is important to decrease drunk driving in the state.

"Well, 72 percent of Montana's DUIs are first-offense DUIs, so that's an issue we need to address," Sager said.

Under current statute, law enforcement officers cannot apply for a warrant to get a blood sample from a DUI suspect until the second offense, which Sager says sometimes leads to costly court battles without hard evidence.

Sen. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, is sponsoring SB 65 and says the bill will not only address drunk driving, but will make the law clearer and easier to interpret.

"DUI code is screwing all over the Montana code book," Regier said.

This bill also increases penalties for aggravated DUIs, and lowers the legal limit of alcohol for taxi or Uber drivers. Regier said first-time offenders often correct their own behavior, but continual offenders need to be kept off the roadways.

"They're really a menace to society," Regier said.

Regier says the committee added amendments to the bill to include more treatment options for DUI offenders. It passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee on an 8-2 vote.

Lawmakers Hear Emotional Testimony on Child Protective Services Bills

In a four-hour hearing Thursday, Montana lawmakers in the House Judiciary Committee heard emotional testimony for three different bills that would make it more difficult for state Child and Family Services Division to remove a child from his or her home.

Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, is carrying House Bill 408, House Bill 409, and House Bill 410. He said in the hearing for the first bill that the state is removing too many children from their families.

"We lead the way in taking kids away from their parents," Lenz said.

HB 408 would require that a child be at risk of serious bodily harm, malnutrition or starvation before he or she can be removed from a home.

Matt Furlong from the Montana Child Protection Alliance spoke in support of the bill. He said he hears grievances from parents of being dissatisfied with foster care, being poorly treated by agency staff and wrongful convictions of abuse.

A number of parents who had children taken away spoke in support of the bill, many saying the removal did more damage than good for their families.

One mother, Deirdre Lechowski Mercado, said her family is still dealing with the fallout from CFSD intervention.

"It traumatized my family to such a degree that my youngest daughter is emotionally disturbed," Mercado said.

However, opponents to the bill argued that the requirement HB 408 would implement for child removal would put the most vulnerable children at risk.

Gallatin County Attorney Marty Lambert said the legislation would "improperly and unduly" hurt children in the state. He said he is sympathetic to the pain parents who lose custody of their children feel, but it's not his greatest concern.

"I grieve a little bit more for these children in these homes where investigations have to be done," Lambert said.

Valerie Winfield, a prosecutor of child abuse cases in Cascade County, pointed to the legal definition of serious bodily harm in her testimony against the bill. She said a broken arm, broken teeth, head trauma, sexual abuse and drug abuse are all conditions that are not included in the bill's definition serious bodily harm.

Winfield said under this bill, children would have to suffer permanent damage before CFSD could intervene.

The committee will have to vote on all three bills individually to decide whether to allow the full House to debate them.

Personhood Bill Advances to Senate

The Montana House of Representatives advanced an amendment to the state constitution Friday that would criminalize abortion by bestowing the constitutional rights of life, liberty, property and due process to a person at any stage of development, including the point of conception.

House Bill 302 passed the House on a 56-43 vote. But, as a constitutional amendment, the bill would need 100 votes out of the 150 members of the Legislature and then would be put on the ballot for voter approval. The bill would need 44 votes in the 50-member Senate to make it to ballot.

Rep. Greg DeVries, R-Jefferson City, sponsored the bill.

"This bill once again provides the Montana Legislature and the citizens of Montana the opportunity to repent," he said. "Personhood begins at conception. We need to restore to those persons their rightful due process of law."

Rep. Emma Kerr-Carpenter, D-Billings, one of the 43 lawmakers who voted against the bill, says decisions about her health should be made by her.

"This is directly legislating my healthcare, my body and my life," she said. "The Supreme Court of the United States has upheld time and time again, that my health is between me and my healthcare provider and my husband if I choose to include him."

Overtime Pay

Lawmakers a considering a bill that would add community assistants at colleges in the state -- student employees who work for student housing -- to a list of employees who are not eligible for overtime pay.

Senate Bill 218 aims to prevent a costly legal change in the Montana University System, and create what the sponsor called "common sense" legislation.

The bill was drafted in response to a wage claim decision from the Department of Labor and Industry that awarded $25,000 to a former student who worked as community assistant for the University of Montana in its housing facilities, according to the sponsor Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick, R-Great Falls. He said this bill will solidify an employment arrangement used by most universities that has "worked for decades."

Community assistants receive free room and board, a stipend and sometimes extra wages, but a claimant argued her compensation did not cover overtime she worked while "on-call" for university housing residents, according to the decision handed down by the Department of Labor and Industry. The $25,000 awarded was calculated using the time she was on call plus penalty fees.

The Montana University System is appealing the decision so the award has not yet been paid to the former community assistant.

Kevin McRae, deputy commissioner for the Montana University System, said this is the only claim for overtime pay that's ever been made by an employee for college housing facilities. He also said that if this claim for overtime becomes precedent, Montana's universities will no longer be able to offer this same kind of employment arrangement in the future.

"We thought it would reasonable and appropriate to get this clarification into state law," McRae said.

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox testifies in support of a bill to restrict opiate prescriptions in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Safety Committee on Feb. 11, 2019. Photo by Shaylee Ragar / UM Legislative News Service.

Chief legal counsel for the Department of Labor and Industry, Judy Bovington, said when a claim is made for the first time, it's a chance for legal analysis. Between appeals and court decisions, it can be a lengthy process.

Helen Thigpen, attorney for the university system, spoke at the bill's hearing and said the language is narrowly tailored to a specific type of employee. She said the university system will not make changes to this student employment arrangement if the bill passes.

The Associated Students of Montana did not take a position on the bill.

Darrell Holzer spoke as a concerned citizen and was the only opponent of the legislation. He told committee members he thinks the Legislature should focus on raising wages, not finding ways to reduce them.

"No matter the service, every worker deserves fair compensation," Holzer said.

The bill awaits a vote by the Senate Education and Cultural Resources Committee before it could move forward to the full Senate for debate.


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