Think losing your driver’s license because of drunken driving is tough?
DUIs are about to get a lot more inconvenient in Missoula County.
Soon, repeat drunk drivers will have to report twice a day to the Missoula County Pre-Release Center for breath tests to prove they’re staying sober. Plus, they’ll have to pay for that particular privilege – so taxpayers won’t have to.
“There aren’t any public funds going into the program,” said Sue Wilkins, executive director of Missoula Correctional Services. “It’s a self-pay offender or defendant program.”
When Wilkins says “program,” she’s referring to Missoula County’s Sobriety and Accountability Program. The idea became better known last year when the Legislature approved a similar “24/7 Sobriety Act” for repeat DUI offenders slowly being implemented around the state.
Under 24/7, participants show up twice a day – in Missoula County, at 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. at the Pre-Release Center on Mullan Road – and provide a breath sample to prove they’re sober.
Skip a test and the county puts out a warrant.
Flunk a test, go directly to jail.
“It’s what makes 24/7 effective,” Wilkins said. “It is inconvenient, and kind of embarrassing, too.”
Missoula County’s program actually has been around for several years, and judges statewide have always had the option to mandate regular testing for people. The new 24/7 law – modeled on one in South Dakota – formalizes that process, and offers Justice Department guidance to counties that want to set up programs like Missoula’s.
So far, 13 counties have 24/7 programs up and running. Those include Flathead, Sanders and Lincoln counties in western Montana.
Those 13 counties have logged 29,337 sobriety tests so far this year, with a 99.5 percent success rate, said Justice Department spokesman John Doran.
“The intent of the 24/7 sobriety program is not only to keep repeat DUI offenders off our streets, and keeping our streets safer, but to enact a cultural change and a behavioral change in repeat DUI offenders,” he said. “That’s the real basis of success – changing behavior.”
Missoula County Sheriff Carl Ibsen said the county will simply expand the program that’s already in place.
“We’ve found our system has more options for us. There’s more local control,” he said.
Participants pay $3 per breath test, $10 per drug screen, or $10 a day for an alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet or a visual breath test done from home.
With the program expected to ramp up significantly, Missoula Correctional Services has added a desk where people will report for their breath tests, and a ticket dispenser like the ones used at the Motor Vehicle Division.
Missoula County Justice Court has been sending repeat offenders to the program for a little more than a week now, and already there’s been one no-show, Wilkins said. The program will include District Court next week, and Municipal Court within a few weeks, she said.
Some 40 people already take part in the program and Wilkins expects that number will rise as more judges get on board.
Missoula County Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech said she’s assigned people to the program for some time now, “especially people with second, third and subsequent DUIs, and first DUIs that have a high breath content.”
Sometimes, she said, she’ll assign someone facing his or her first DUI charge to the program for a couple of weeks “to see if somebody has an issue with alcohol that might translate to what’s known as an addiction.”
The program takes Montana’s geography into consideration. An ankle bracelet is an option for people who live far from the testing center.
“If you live in Condon [at the northern end of the county], why do a 200-mile drive a day?” Ibsen said. Especially if you’re not allowed to drive.
People with DUIs usually lose their licenses, at least for six months. That means they’ve got to rely on family or friends to get them to the tests. Although Mountain Line runs along Mullan Road, there’s no bus service in the evening, Wilkins said.
“But there are things called bikes and legs,” she said.
“In part,” added Ibsen, only half-joking, “it’s a health-incentive program.”
Healthier for participants who walk or cycle there.
And much, much healthier for motorists who can rest assured that there are fewer drunk drivers on Missoula County’s roads.