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Bill aimed at tackling shoplifting, misdemeanor crimes becomes Montana law

Bill aimed at tackling shoplifting, misdemeanor crimes becomes Montana law

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A combo bill to give police more leeway in making low-level arrests and to provide retailers with a new tool against shoplifters has become law.

The bill, brought in response to criminal justice reforms passed in 2017, was a dual effort by police and retailers to regain ground on disorderly calls and misdemeanor thefts.

Gov. Steve Bullock received HB 421 on May 1 but let the 10-day window to sign or veto it pass. That allows the measure to become law without his signature.

The bill, carried by Rep. Julie Dooling, R-Helena, restores the possibility of arrest on certain misdemeanor offenses, after it had been taken away amid a major reform of the state’s criminal justice system.

Police can make arrests only for crimes that are punishable by incarceration, unless the person presents an immediate danger to themselves or others.

Jail time was taken away from the sentencing range for various misdemeanors in 2017.

Law enforcement said the changes tied their hands on calls such as a disorderly bar patron, and prevented them from making an arrest until the situation escalated.

Big box stores said they've seen increased shoplifting in the past two years and largely blamed the reforms.

The new law also creates a misdemeanor crime, with possible jail time, for using an emergency exit while shoplifting. 

The Senate passed the bill 29-21 and the House passed it 58-40.

A fiscal note for HB 421 estimates the legislation will cost the state an additional $264,260 to $272,247 a year in added public defender costs.

The bill was backed by the Montana Retail Association, law enforcement groups and the Attorney General's office. 

The American Civil Liberties Union opposed the measure. 

HB 421 was one of a handful of bills this year brought in response to the 2017 reforms.

Those include:

• SB 155, which restores the mandatory minimum of 25 years in prison with no parole or suspension for a rape, incest or sexual abuse of children involving victims age 12 or younger. Bullock signed the bill.

• SB 65, which would have overhauled the state’s DUI laws and boosted penalties against repeat drunken drivers. The bill died after passing the Senate 39-10.

• HB 534, which overlapped with a portion of SB 65, would have required prison time for fifth or subsequent DUI convictions. Bullock vetoed the bill.

• HB 463, which gives prosecutors a chance to object to a defendant’s petition for release from supervision. Bullock signed the bill.


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