JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri court officials are warning that thousands of infraction cases may have to be scrapped unless legislators act by the end of this month to undo recent changes to state traffic laws.
The rush is a result of legislation gone awry.
Court officials contended last year that Missouri's vehicle laws needed an overhaul to make the judicial system more efficient. Lawmakers complied. But now court officials say those changes have resulted in unforeseen inefficiencies. And lawmakers are shifting into reverse.
At issue are vehicle offenses such as dazzling spotlights, uncovered trailers, darkened windows, raised bumpers and mo-peds on interstate highways.
A 2009 law changed those offenses and others from misdemeanors to infractions. It also stated that all infractions — there are more than 100 types, including seat belt violations, improper lane changes, minors possessing tobacco and deer hunters not wearing orange clothing — should be handled in court as a "civil action."
The intent of the changes, which were backed by the Office of State Courts Administrator, was to let courts more easily dispose of what were considered to be relatively minor offenses.
When charges are filed as misdemeanors that can result in jail time, defendants are entitled to attorneys. And if defendants fail to show up in court — a relatively common occurrence for traffic tickets — a warrant is issued to make them appear.
But those warrants can be hard to enforce. Police and sheriff's deputies have plenty of bigger cases about which to worry. And it can take a lot of time and resources to track down a no-show motorist who may live far away from where the ticket was issued.
By reducing some offenses from misdemeanors to mere infractions — and treating all infractions as civil actions — lawmakers created a lower standard of proof for guilt and freed the courts from issuing warrants for defendants who failed to appear. Instead, judges could make default judgments against no-shows, then levy fines and court costs against them.
"It seemed like a good idea to me," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, who inserted the provisions into a wide-ranging transportation bill during the 2009 session. It was "an effort to save the courts time and a lot of expense."
But concerns began arising even before the new law took effect Aug. 28, said House Transportation Committee Chairman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, who had supported the bill.
Judges and prosecutors in several counties interpreted the new law to mean that the Missouri State Highway Patrol no longer had the authority to write tickets for infractions, because they now were handled like civil actions instead of crimes, said patrol spokesman Lt. John Hotz.
Some prosecutors also were unsure about how to pursue infractions under the rules for civil actions, which typically apply to lawsuits not criminal cases.
Camden County Prosecutor Brian Keedy told The Associated Press on Friday that he has a backlog of 63 infractions since Aug. 28 on which he has taken no action.
"I quit filing them because I can't quite figure out how to file them," Keedy said. The 2009 law "changed the whole procedure for handling infractions without specifying what that procedure was. Everything we knew about how things were supposed to work with infractions kind of went out the window."
In the 2009 fiscal year, Missouri courts handled more than 41,000 infractions, according to statistics from the Office of State Courts Administrator. It's unclear how many cases are pending this year.
But in a memo distributed to lawmakers last week, State Courts Administrator Greg Linhares said the 2009 law created "a critical procedural problem ... that is causing vast numbers of infractions cases to go unresolved."
Under existing Missouri law, infraction cases must be filed within six months of the offense. Linhares urged legislators to reverse last year's law by Feb. 28, "or else thousands of these cases may go unresolved due to the passage of the statute of limitations."
The House passed legislation 151-4 on Thursday that would restore some of newly minted infractions back to misdemeanors and repeal the section describing infractions as a "civil action." The bill now goes to the Senate.
The 2010 legislation also makes a new attempt at unclogging the courts by giving judges the option — beginning in 2012 — to issue either a warrant or default judgment with fines and court costs when defendants fail to show up for infraction cases.
Democratic Rep. John Burnett, an attorney from Kansas City, said he opposed both the 2009 changes and the 2010 correction. He prefers simply to repeal last year's law, because he says citizens have fewer legal protections when courts can enter default judgments against them.
That is "a no-good, very bad, horrible idea," Burnett said.