The alleged drunk driver who crashed through a fence and nearly hit three children at Horine Park on June 11 was back in court Friday, accepting a plea deal and once again illustrating weaknesses in how the state of Montana deals with repeat DUI offenders.
Debbie Rae Paszek went before Flathead County District Judge Robert Allison Friday to accept a plea deal in which she agreed to plead guilty to the charges of her fifth DUI in the state of Montana as well as criminal endangerment in the hopes of receiving a reduced sentence of five years to be served conncurently on both counts.
She faced a maximum of 15 years.
The 55-year-old mother of five was in tears on the stand as the court heard a recitation of the events leading to her arrest June 11. She agreed to plead guilty, even though she admitted that she could not remember the events that led to her arrest that day. Blood testing showed that her blood-alcohol level was .285 at the time of her arrest, more than three times the legal limit.
While a person’s first felony DUI conviction (which would be their fourth overall) in the state of Montana carries a minimum sentence of 13 months, subsequent offenses have no minimum sentencing guidelines, meaning it is up the judge’s discretion to determine punishment, which can often be far less that what is required of previous DUI convictions. It is a problem that has not gone unnoticed by lawmakers, law enforcement and those proposing DUI law reform in Montana.
“This woman is the poster child for Montana’s drunk driving problem,” Frank Harris, the National Director of State Government Affairs for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said. “Judges in Montana want to give the appearance that they are trying to solve the DUI problem in the state, but in truth they are pretty weak on repeat offenders.”
It is a problem Col. Tom Butler, commander of the Montana Highway Patrol, has been battling throughout his 27-year career.
“I am of the opinion that the judiciary needs the option for some significant prison sentences and/or some significant long-term inpatient treatment options. Clearly, what we are doing now is not working,” Butler said. “We have some significant challenges right now with offenders with multiple DUIs. I’m not 100 percent certain what the solution is for those. It’s something we need to figure out because there is no doubt that impaired people kill themselves and other people.”
A 2018 study of Montana DUI Task Force members, judges and attorneys showed overwhelming support by law enforcement to make the third DUI a felony in Montana, instead of the fourth. The study showed that 81 percent of law enforcement officers surveyed were in favor of the action. When asked what should be done with DUI offenders with four or more offenses, law enforcement was strongly in favor of stiffer sentences with 27 of the 40 questioned simply responding that more prison time is needed. Eight suggested a lifetime suspension of a person’s driver’s license after a fourth offense.
Despite the overwhelming support the study showed for harsher penalties, it concluded that making a third DUI a felony in Montana was not feasible at this time due to financial concerns stemming from increased incarceration time and the cost of intensive alcohol treatment. The study showed that longer prison terms can protect the public from repeat DUI offenders, but those longer prison terms do not seem to keep repeat offenders from continued drinking and driving upon release.
Montana lawmakers did pass House Bill 534 during their legislative session in 2019, a bill that would have increased penalties for felony DUI offenders, but the bill was vetoed by Gov. Steve Bullock in May. In his veto letter, Bullock said the bill was “well-intentioned,” but “a step backwards for criminal justice reform” in Montana.
Bullock pointed in his letter to studies showing that felony DUI convictions in Montana are on a four-year downward trend, but some would argue these numbers are due to the number of DUI offenses that are pleaded down to lesser offenses in Montana courts.
To help combat this problem, the 2018 DUI Task Fork study proposed a system be put in place to hold judges and attorneys accountable for their actions in DUI cases, a system that would collect data on the number of DUI cases heard, the number of cases dismissed, the number of DUI convictions and the number of cases plead to lesser offenses. This proposal met strong support from law enforcement surveyed, but was supported by only 50 percent of attorneys and 40 percent of judges.
While there may be disagreement on what to do with repeat DUI offenders, there is little arguing that DUI is a real problem in Montana.
Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) show that Montana led the nation for highest percentage of fatal accidents caused by drunk drivers in 2012, 2014 and 2016 with Montana deaths caused by alcohol-impaired drivers at twice the national average over the past five years. The percentage of fatality accidents in the state caused by drivers with more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in their system is also on the rise, up from 30 percent in 2007 to 36 percent in 2016.
According to Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, the author of House Bill 534, the drunk driving problem in Montana is real and should be dealt with.
“There is just a small segment of offenders who are not amenable to treatment and the best protection for a community is the ability of a judge to remove that person from society for a period of time,” he said. “Right now, you could have someone with 10 or more DUIs convicted and only have them spend nine months in prison. To me, that just doesn’t seem reasonable. There just seems to be an unwillingness to recognize just how significant a problem drinking and driving really is in the state of Montana.”
Paszek is scheduled for sentencing before Judge Allison in Flathead County District Court Oct. 17 at 1:30 p.m.