Legislation, which would toughen state laws dealing with intoxicated drivers, has been approved by the Missouri House of Representatives. Should the bill be endorsed as well by the Missouri Senate, it would help to ensure that drunken drivers do not escape penalties for their crimes.
The chief sponsor of the bill is Representative Bryan Stevenson of Webb City, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. Stevenson says that the current legal system makes it too easy to plead down alcohol offenses or avoid convictions for repeat offenses. That assessment is supported by a recent investigation conducted by the St. Louis Post -Dispatch which found that intoxicated drivers often receive little more than legal slaps on the hand from the judicial system Representative Stevenson believes one of the major reasons for lax enforcement is the leniency found in the municipal court system.
The bill seeks to address that by moving the cases of many repeat offenders into the state court system, where stronger penalties would likely be imposed.
The bill would increase the penalties for drivers whose blood alcohol content (BAC) registers 0.15 percent or more, and would prohibit their attorneys from arranging plea agreements in which they avoid convictions on their record.
The legislation would also establish minimum jail sentences for those convicted of driving while intoxicated: 48 hours for those with a 0.15 percent BAC; five days for those with a 0.20 percent BAC; 10 days for prior offenders; and 30 days for persistent offenders. Drivers who refuse to submit to blood-alcohol tests would lose their driver's licenses for two years, as opposed to the one-year revocation period in the current law.
The Post-Dispatch series confirmed that drivers who refuse the test can often succeed in holding on to their licenses through plea deals negotiated by their attorneys. Under the bill, police would also have the authority to extract blood samples from suspected drunk drivers without a warrant.
Stevenson believes one of the major problems in DWI enforcement is the lack of information-sharing between various courts and law enforcement agencies. He says this disconnect allows drunk drivers with convictions in different jurisdictions to avoid harsher penalties for repeat offenders.
The bill seeks to address this problem by calling for local police, county prosecutors, and municipal judges to report DWI offenses to a central databank as a condition for being eligible for state public safety grants.
Stevenson has worked with Governor Jay Nixon to advance the legislation, who made reform of the state's drunk driving laws one of his top legislative priorities this session. The Governor has stated that enforcement of laws dealing with drunk driving is "riddled with loopholes and dark corners." He called the House action an "important first step toward DWI reform." Governor Nixon convened a DWI summit last November, which included police chiefs and sheriffs, local prosecutors, judges, and victims' advocates.
The Governor solicited recommendations on how to reform the state's system for prosecuting and sentencing motorists driving under the influence of alcohol. Following the summit the Governor observed: "There are simply too many gaps in our current system. The way we handle drunk driving cases in Missouri is broken.
We have a duty to protect Missouri families by improving every aspect of DWI enforcement, from the traffic stops that initiate cases to the sentences handed out by judges, and even the way records of offenders are kept."
"There's a strong desire among members of both parties to close the gaps
in our current law, provide tough consequences for offenders, and make Missouri's roads safer," the Governor concluded.
An estimated 11,773 people died in 2008 in motor vehicle crashes involving drunk drivers across the United States. That amounted to 32 percent of the total traffic fatalities that year. In Missouri, 363 people lost their lives in alcohol-related traffic incidents in 2008, which comprised 38% of all the traffic deaths on Missouri roadways that year.
We commend the Governor and the Legislature for addressing this important issue for Missouri families in a bold and bipartisan fashion