Missoula lawmakers today moved one step closer to making it a crime for motorists suspected of driving under the influence to refuse a law enforcement officer’s request to submit to alcohol or drug testing.
As it stands now, refusing to perform a sobriety test is a civil offense, punishable by six-month suspension of one’s drivers license. If the ordinance passes council muster after a public hearing slated for March 8, refusal to submit to alcohol or drug testing would become a misdemeanor within city limits punishable by a $300 fine.
That “hopefully provides an incentive for folks before jumping in their car, driving and refusing the test,” said City Councilman Dave Strohmaier during Wednesday’s Public Health and Safety Committee meeting.
In Missoula, nearly 41 percent of people stopped for drunk driving refuse to submit to drug or alcohol testing. And it’s tough to prosecute people with no physical evidence, said Missoula Police Chief Mark Muir. “We’re in support of councilman Strohmaier’s referral,” Muir added.
Others, though, voiced concern the proposal has not been sufficiently fleshed out and might not fly under Montana’s Constitution, which includes strict protections on police searches.
“I know we’re going to get sued for this,” said City Councilman Jon Wilkins.
And, if so, he wondered, who will cover costs of defending a lawsuit?
Meanwhile, local consultant and self-proclaimed civil libertarian Jed Taylor said if the council approves the ordinance, refusing a police officer’s request would immediately classify someone as a criminal, forcing people to prove innocence. “That’s just simply wrong,” Taylor said.
And, Taylor asked, if drugs are suspected, who will bear the costs of performing blood tests? (If someone is suspected of driving drugged in Montana, law enforcement conducts blood tests).
“So, who is going to pay for me to prove my innocence?” Taylor asked. “Please reconsider and find a better way.”
The council will hold a public hearing March 8 to discuss the ordinance.
“There will be plenty of time to address questions,” Strohmaier said.