Panel considers problem of DWI prosecution and recidivism

Thursday, November 5, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:13 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 5, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon said Wednesday that current driving while intoxicated procedures in the state are "simply not acceptable."

Providing opening remarks to a panel of judges, prosecutors and law enforcement personnel from across the state, Nixon said that laws and reporting methods need to be strengthened to treat drunken driving enforcement sternly and equally across Missouri.

"Too often the most dangerous, chronic intoxicated drivers are still allowed to keep driving," Nixon said.

Following his remarks, Nixon left and turned the meeting over to the panel for discussion.

Dwight Scroggins, prosecuting attorney for Buchanan County, said a problem exists in the way the state treats first-time offenders.

"The scheme is based on how many times you get caught," Scroggins said. Although the state treats first-time offenders as if they made a one-time mistake, he said, studies show most first-time offenders are actually repeat offenders who weren't caught before. 

Scroggins said he would like the state to do away with procedures in the state that allow DWI offenders to receive a suspended imposition of sentence, though a number of other panelists disagreed.

According to recent reports by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under a suspended imposition of sentence, a person can avoid a DWI conviction through a plea deal and probation. Once the offender has completed the probation, the DWI charges are dropped.

The Post-Dispatch's analysis showed that in 2006, 29 percent of those who are arrested in Missouri for DWI avoid conviction; in the St. Louis area, that rate is as high as 50 percent.

Morley Swingle, prosecuting attorney for Cape Girardeau County, said Monday that the suspensions can be effective if administered properly. In Cape Girardeau, Swingle said, records of suspended sentences are closed to the public but stay on offenders' records.

Kevin Kelly, a municipal judge in Maryland Heights, agreed with Swingle.

While people who are convicted of a first-time DWI may serve five days in jail, suspended sentences give "a judge something to hang over the head" of offenders, Kelly said.

Another major topic of discussion was how to better share DWI records between municipalities.

"If someone can steal my identity from Sri Lanka, certainly we can have some kind of reporting system to get information into one database," Mothers Against Drunk Driving representative Mike Boland said.

Swingle proposed making the records of anyone convicted of a DWI available to the public on the Department of Revenue's Web site.

A number of panelists also discussed the possibility of requiring DWI offenders to install interlock devices in lieu of receiving a suspension of driving privileges.

Interlock devices require drivers to pass an in-car Breathalyzer exam before a vehicle's motor will start.

"For a hardcore drunk, suspending a a license has zero impact and effect on the individual," McCulloch said.

Kelly, who also works as a defense attorney on DWI cases, said the interlock option would allow people who would have violated their suspension to continue working or going to treatment.

23rd Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins proposed a plan similar to Kelly's, but under which the state would allow offenders to drive on a suspended license for emergency or work reasons as long as drivers have insurance and install the interlock device.

Finally, some panelists said that a growing number of motorists are simply refusing to take Breathalyzers administrated by law enforcement officials.

Under current Missouri law, motorists who refuse a Breathalyzer are supposed to lose their driver's license for a year, but a number of panelists complained that penalties are often pled down.

The state should enact a law that prohibits motorists from refusing a Breathalyzer, Keathley said, adding that a similar law already exists in South Dakota. Any person who operates a motor vehicle in South Dakota is considered to have given consent to a chemical analysis of their breath.

Nixon said he wants to have a bill concerning new DWI laws filed before the next legislative session begins in January.

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