Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has signed a new state law designed to strengthen the state's enforcement of drunk driving offenses. The legislation, which was
approved unanimously by both houses of the General Assembly, would impose tougher penalties on intoxicated drivers.
The new state statutes were drafted to address the rampant problem of repeat offenders escaping serious legal consequences for their reckless conduct. These problems were highlighted in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch series that revealed that numerous chronic offenders continued to drive drunk without any real consequence for their crimes.
Nixon had made passage of stronger DWI laws one of his top legislative priorities this past session. "This [new law] should mean that fewer families will have to answer
a knock at the door in the middle of the night and learn that a loved one's life has been cut short by a drunk driver," Nixon said at the bill signing. "We have closed loopholes that have allowed repeat drunk drivers to keep putting innocent lives at risk."
A major provision of the new law requires that all DWI cases involving persistent offenders must be prosecuted in state court. The effect of that
provision is to remove such cases from municipal courts, where enforcement of drunk driving offenses often proves to be lax.
Motorists who operate a motor vehicle with a blood alcohol content of .15 or more can no longer obtain a suspended imposition of sentence, where their record
shows no history of an alcohol-related conviction. The only exception is for a first offense, where the offender has the option of entering an alcohol treatment program.
Prior offenders who are convicted of driving under the influence will now face a minimum prison term of 10 days, and persistent offenders will be jailed for a minimum of 30 days. Offenders have the option of participating in a court-supervised treatment program or performing community service.
The new law attempts to shore up a statewide problem of poor record-keeping of prior DWI offenses. All law enforcement agencies, county prosecutors, and municipal prosecutors will be required to report arrests
for any alcohol-related traffic offense to a central repository of the State Highway Patrol. County prosecutors had claimed that many municipal offenses go unreported.
The new DWI language removes a provision in the current law that no breathalyzer test may be given by a law enforcement officer if a motorist who has been arrested or stopped for driving under the influence refuses to submit to the chemical test.
Traffic accident statistics maintained by the Missouri Highway Patrol reveal that 35,000 motorists were
arrested for driving while intoxicated last year. Approximately one-quarter of all fatal crashes on Missouri roadways last year were caused by drunk drivers.
The legislation adopted by the General Assembly was sponsored and spearheaded by State Representative Bryan Stevenson of Joplin. Senator Kurt Schaefer of Columbia was the major advocate for the legislation in the Missouri Senate.
After a bill-signing ceremony in Joplin, Governor Nixon gave a signed copy of the measure to Greg and Kerry Freeman. Their daughter, Christina, who was 17 at the time, was killed by a drunk driver four years ago. The motorist, who admitted to consuming seven to eight
drinks of vodka, plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to seven years in prison, but served only 120 days of "shock" incarceration, and was released with five years probation.
"She was three months from graduating," Kerry Freeman says. "It's been four years now, and it doesn't get any better. You live with it, or you fight, and we'll keep fighting."
Governor Nixon believes the the new law is the most
significant action taken by the state to combat drunk driving since the blood alcohol content limit was reduced to .08 in 2001. "Repeat DWI offenders will spend more
time in jail if they don't get treatment, the most dangerous offenders will be treated more harshly, and better records will be kept to track all DWI offenders. This is a milestone for Missouri in the fight against drunk driving."
We applaud the Governor and legislative leaders for working in a productive and bipartisan fashion to enact this vital life-saving legislation.