Bill to criminalize DUI breath-test refusal tabled in Senate committee


HELENA — A Senate committee has killed a bill that would make it a crime for a drunken-driving suspect to refuse a breath or blood test.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted Friday to table Senate Bill 308, with Republicans voting to kill it.

SB308 was one of several bills this session to crack down on or help prevent drunken-driving in Montana, which has one of the nation’s highest rates of alcohol-related traffic deaths per miles driven.

Most of the other major anti-DUI bills are advancing through the Legislature.

Sen. Cliff Larsen, D-Missoula, the sponsor of SB308, said he amended the bill Friday so its penalties wouldn’t kick in until a second offense, because some Republicans on the panel suggested that change might persuade them to support it.

But Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, argued strongly in committee that the bill is unconstitutional, because it criminalizes someone’s right to refuse what is essentially a search, Larsen said.

Shockley is sponsoring a bill that authorizes law officers to get a warrant to force DUI suspects to submit to a breath or blood test. That bill passed the Senate this week.

Larsen said he thought his bill actually was less invasive than Shockley’s proposal, because it merely created criminal penalties for people not submitting to a breath or blood test after they’re arrested on suspicion of DUI.

“I’m not forcing them to blow,” he said. “I’m just penalizing them if they don’t. I thought it was a really good bill.”

The current penalties for refusing a breath or blood test are administrative, such as revocation of a driver’s license.

At Thursday’s hearing on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, prosecutors said experienced drunken drivers often refuse a breath test, because they know that makes it hard to get a conviction. They said many drunken drivers don’t have a driver’s license, so the current penalties are meaningless.

SB308 would have created penalties for refusal that are similar to a conviction for drunk driving.