OVERLAND — Gov. Jay Nixon on Wednesday announced his legislative proposal for overhauling the way Missouri handles drunken-driving cases, a month after he convened a summit to discuss ways to improve how drunken drivers are prosecuted, punished and treated.
Nixon, joined by sponsors of the legislation, announced his plans at three stops in eastern Missouri, including the office of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the St. Louis suburb of Overland, where he was surrounded by photographs of people killed by intoxicated motorists.
Nixon said reforms were needed to ensure "fewer and fewer victims" of drunken driving in a state where alcohol played a role in more than 7,300 traffic accidents last year.
The solution is "air tight laws, aggressive prosecution, tough sentencing and strict accountability," he said. "The current law is unacceptable."
The legislation Nixon proposed Wednesday would eliminate loopholes that interfere with prosecutions and make sure all DWI offenses are recorded and tracked, he said. The proposal would:
- Require repeat DWI offenders, drivers who refuse to submit to a blood-alcohol test and those with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or higher to be charged in state court, where they face stiffer penalties;
- Create tougher penalties for offenders with blood-alcohol levels of at least 0.15, which is twice the level of presumed intoxication in Missouri;
- Make it a crime for any driver to refuse to submit to a blood-alcohol test;
- Expand the use of ignition-interlock devices — currently limited to repeat offenders — to include cases of a driver refusing to submit to a blood-alcohol test or having a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 or higher;
- Eliminate the provision in current law that allows DWI offenders to have their records cleared after 10 years of no further offense;
- Require all jurisdictions to enter DWI arrest and case information into the Missouri State Highway Patrol's tracking system for DWI offenders; and
- Prohibit a defendant from withdrawing a guilty plea for DWI at the end of a probation period under a suspended imposition of sentence.
State Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Joplin, the House bill's sponsor and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and state Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, its co-sponsor, joined Nixon, along with state Sen. Rita Heard Days, D-St. Louis County, who said chances of passage are good.
Gesturing toward the victims' photos at the MADD office, Heard Days said, "No one is saying, 'That's a Democrat,' or, 'That's a Republican.' These are all victims. Everyone in the state has been affected."
She said state Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would sponsor the bill in the Senate.
Mike Boland, an 18-year volunteer with MADD's St. Louis affiliate, said reforming the law also would validate efforts of police, who he believes are doing more sobriety checks and patrols looking for drunken drivers.
The number of alcohol-related crashes in the state dropped to 7,373 last year from 7,780 in 2007, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The number of injuries in alcohol-related crashes also dropped, from 4,889 in 2007 to 4,511 in 2008.
But the number of people killed in alcohol-related crashes in Missouri rose from 243 in 2007 to 262 in 2008.
In September, the Columbia Police Department was awarded a $260,000 grant from the Missouri Department of Transportation to purchase two vehicles to be used strictly for DWI enforcement.
Columbia Police Chief Ken Burton said the department would purchase two Chevrolet Tahoes for the unit, which would keep the current color scheme already painted on Columbia police cars.
He said two officers would be reassigned to DWI enforcement and the department would hire two officers to replace them.
Burton said offenses should be met with more “corrective” punishments to reduce the number of repeat offenders. He said it was “ridiculous” to read news stories about deaths resulting from traffic accidents involving drunk drivers who are repeat offenders.
“If it’s not corrective, then obviously the punishment is not serving the society by correcting the behavior,” Burton said.
But Robert Murray, a Columbia lawyer who specializes in defending DWI cases, said Columbia and Boone County had some of the most vigorous enforcement of DWIs in the state.
Murray said the number of offenders, especially repeat offenders, could be reduced with improved mass transit, better testing procedures for police and better education for civilians.
“Most folks have little idea how little it takes to get to 0.08,” he said, referring to the current legal limit to be arrested for a DWI.
In 2008, Columbia police made 384 arrests for driving under the influence according to the Missouri Highway Patrol Uniform Crime Report, and MU Police made 275.
So far this year, there have been 337 arrests by the Columbia Police Department for the offense, and the MU Police have reported 222.
Last month, Nixon convened more than a dozen Missouri prosecutors, judges, activists, law officers and state officials to look at ways to ensure drunken drivers get the right punishment and not re-offend.
The summit was prompted by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch investigation that highlighted how poor record-keeping and failure to punish drunken drivers let chronic offenders keep driving.
Late last month, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay said the city would no longer allow first-time offenders to plead guilty to lesser charges, and it will continue to refer repeat offenders to state court.
— Missourian reporters Andrew Denney and Lauren Young and the Associated Press contributed to this report.