Mont. judge on DUI task force charged with DUI

AP News
Posted: Apr 08, 2011 3:56 PM
Mont. judge on DUI task force charged with DUI

A Montana justice of the peace set to preside over a DUI court later this year has been charged with driving under the influence of drugs after authorities said he stumbled sweating and disoriented into a police station.

The misdemeanor charge filed Thursday against Robert E. Lee is the latest in a string of DUI reports involving high-profile officials as Montana lawmakers consider stricter laws aimed at changing attitudes of acceptance toward driving under the influence.

Lee, 66, is charged with driving while under the influence of methadone, a synthetic narcotic used to relieve pain or prevent withdrawal symptoms from drug addiction. He denied the charges Friday in a phone interview with The Associated Press, but declined to speak about the allegations in detail.

"I'm not on any drugs," he said. "There are several discrepancies in the complaint, and I'm sure when we get into court they'll be clarified."

On the morning of the arrest Nov. 13, police officers found Lee knocking on their lobby window and asking to be let in the nearby Butte-Silver Bow County Courthouse to officiate a wedding, according to an affidavit. Lee was sweating profusely, appeared disoriented, had difficulty keeping his balance and gave confused answers to the officers' questions, the affidavit said.

Officers asked Lee if he was taking any medications, which he initially denied. He said later he had taken Lorazepam, an anti-anxiety medication that he takes when he flies, the affidavit said.

Lee performed poorly on a field sobriety test, police said. A blood test confirmed the presence of methadone.

Officers searched Lee's vehicle and found a methadone tablet. At his house, officers were shown an empty bottle of methadone. The 60-tablet prescription had been filled nine days earlier. They also found a bottle of Lorazepam.

Lee's wife told investigators that he had taken three tablets before he left the house and that Lee was taking Lorazepam to get off methadone. Lee "was taking too many pills and he has a problem," his wife told police, according to the affidavit.

Lee said Friday that was "a mistaken statement by my wife" and that he doesn't take drugs.

Lee is a retired Butte police officer and a member of the Butte-Silver Bow County DUI Task Force, which brings together law enforcement, courts, community leaders and businesses to strategize how to reduce drunken driving in the region. He is also credited with starting a program in his county that uses an alcohol-sensing ankle bracelet that tests a person's sweat.

He is scheduled to rotate in as the presiding judge of the county's DUI court in October. Fellow justice of the peace Debra Williams now presides over the court, which began operations last October.

Lee said he would have to be found guilty of the DUI charges to be prevented from assuming those duties, and he believes that he will be vindicated through the legal process.

County commissioners asked the state to help prosecute the case late last month. County attorney Eileen Joyce said the reason for the delay was because the investigation was not completed until then, and politics did not play a role. The county had intended to transfer prosecution to the state the entire time, she said.

"It's the judge that we work with and we wanted to avoid any potential conflict of interest," Joyce said.

The county attorney denied a records request from The Montana Standard in December based on an item on the police dispatch log.

It was the latest in a string of apparent conflicts involving state officials whose position gives them influence in shaping or interpreting DUI laws. In January, state Sen. Jim Shockley, the sponsor of several bills to strengthen Montana's drunken driving laws, stepped down as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when he was arrested for driving with an open beer in his vehicle. He passed a field sobriety test and said he would still run for attorney general in 2012.

Earlier this month, anti-drunken-driving advocates blasted state Rep. Alan Hale for a speech he made on the House floor saying DUI laws are harmful to small businesses. The Republican from Basin, who runs a bar, implied that people need to drive home after drinking at their local bars.

Mothers Against Drunken driving said those statements brought Montana back to a dangerous time when drunken driving was acceptable in the state.