DUIs on the rise in Beaverhead, trending down statewide

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, August 31, 2022
State DUI statistics

Driving Under the Influence of alcohol or drug citations are on an upward swing in Beaverhead County, despite state law increases in penalties and local efforts to provide safe rides home during holiday weekends like Labor Day.

DUI and DUI-related offense citations are declining statewide, according to the Montana Board of Crime Control (see related charts). The data includes DUI citations for alcohol and drugs, DUIs for those under age 21, aggravated DUIs (higher blood alcohol content levels) vehicular homicide while under the influence, and criminal child endangerment involving a DUI. The figures are from Montana Highway Patrol and local law enforcement data through 2020 (the most recent year available).

Local law enforcement officials say they believe there has been an overall rise in crime in the past few years, and the number and severity of DUIs are increasing.

Dillon Police Chief Jeremy Alvarez, a 10-year officer with the department, said local crime has increased in severity and frequency over the years, and police are seeing more drugrelated DUIs. “I believe some of it is due to the pandemic,” Dillon Police Chief Jeremy Alvarez said. “I believe crime is up – not only that, but violent crimes, more felony crimes. It seems to be consuming more of our time, from sexual assault, to child sex crimes and child abuse, to burglary and drug cases. It all seems to be skyrocketing compared to years past.”

“We deal with more DUIs than anything else – DUIs, alcohol-related and drug-related crimes,” he added, noting that includes domestic violence situations which can also be fueled by both substances. “They are not victimless crimes.”

Beaverhead County Undersheriff David Wendt agreed: “I think DUIs are getting worse, not so much alcohol DUIs as marijuana or drug DUIs. They aren’t more than alcohol DUIs, but there are more than in the past.”

Beaverhead County Attorney Jed C. Fitch said the number of DUIs as a percentage of crimes his office handled were declining compared to when he started 14 years ago, but the numbers are increasing along with his caseload in the past few years.

“(DUIs) went way down with COVID, but now it seems like they are all coming back,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of felony DUIs we didn’t have before. More people are out now doing stuff, and more people are getting caught. I don’t know if we’ll ever eliminate them.” Penalties escalate for multiple convictions Montana law changed in 2021 to provide more severe penalties for defendants convicted of four or more DUIs. Penalties are up to $10,000 in fines and up to 25 years in prison at the highest end of successive DUI convictions. Convictions also result in a driver’s license suspension and an extra charge to reinstate a driver’s license, court fees, counseling and treatment costs. The penalties are more severe for aggravated DUIs.

People do not realize how much a DUI can impact their lives, officials say.

“Most people that get a first offense DUI never get another one,” Fitch said. “Most people who get their first DUI find it’s expensive, it’s embarrassing, it’s stressful, it’s an unpleasant experience. They never get another DUI. That first DUI might have been the 20th time they drank and drove, but now they’ve got their first DUI on their record. And they don’t do it again. For people who get a second DUI, it’s typically just a matter of time until the third, the fourth – that’s just how it works.”

Alvarez agreed: “If someone gets their first DUI, they never do it again, and we never have a problem,” he said. “But if you get a second or third, you are right on the cusp of getting a fourth, or even more.”

DUI Task Force Chair Kim Martinell said having a conviction on a person’s record can also impact their ability to travel. Martinell explained she knows people who want to go to Canada but have a misdemeanor DUI on their record. In Canada, that would be a felony, and they are not allowed to cross the border.

Penalties were increased last year to deal with the small fraction of repeat DUI offenders – those who get four or more in a lifetime. Statewide county attorneys pushed for the change in the hopes more severe penalties might be a greater deterrent and give attorneys options for plea bargain negotiations, Fitch said.

“In the reality of the world, even in big counties, you don’t have very many 10th DUI cases,” he said. “We have to increase the punishments for these limited cases that do represent a severe danger to the public. These are the kind of people that if you’ve gotten caught 10 times drinking and driving, you have drunkenly driven maybe 5,000 times. You’re a danger to the public.”

DUI avoidance options available

The culture is slowly changing, with more and more people willing to turn over their keys to a friend or set up a designated driver for a night of drinking. And larger communities have other options – rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft.

In Dillon, the DUI Task Force sponsors a free “safe ride” program over Labor Day weekend (see related story). Alvarez praised that option for keeping people safe and attributes lower numbers of DUIs in the city over the holiday weekend to its creation.

“It’s just been a huge benefit for us. They try to make it as public as possible that safe rides are available and they’ll get you home safely,” Alvarez said. “They hand cards with the phone number out at bars, and at the fair to let people know. It’s been a really good partnership.”

Despite all the efforts of reducing alcohol and other substance abuse in the county, officials do not expect DUIs or drug-related crimes will ever go away.

“You will always have those people who think they are invincible, they think, ‘I’ve only had one beer or whatever.’ There’s always people that don’t listen. It keeps us employed, I guess,” Wendt said.

Alvarez encouraged residents to have a good time this year, and take advantage of the alternatives in town.

“Be that responsible friend or family member – don’t be afraid to take their keys away, or make that effort to be the designated driver,” he said. “Enjoy your alcohol responsibly, don’t drink and drive. Don’t put your life and other people’s lives at risk by getting behind the wheel.”