Gov. Nixon signs bill changing, clarifying 2009 Missouri traffic law

Thursday, February 25, 2010 | 7:04 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon signed legislation Thursday designed to fix problems with a 2009 law that placed thousands of traffic cases into limbo.

At the urging of court officials, the legislature last year made some minor traffic offenses infractions rather than misdemeanors. It also stated that infractions should be handled in court as a "civil action."

But some prosecutors were unsure about how to pursue infraction cases under the new system. And several judges and prosecutors interpreted the law to mean the Missouri State Highway Patrol no longer had authority to write tickets for infractions.

Last year's law took effect Aug. 28. Missouri's statute of limitations for filing infraction cases is six months, so state officials needed to resolve the confusion by the end of February or thousands of infractions could not have been prosecuted.

Lawmakers gave the legislation final approval Thursday. Several hours later, a spokesman for Nixon said the governor had signed the bill.

This year's bill restored some of those infractions to misdemeanors and deleted the wording describing infractions as a "civil action."

The 2009 law was designed to help courts operate more efficiently by letting them 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. By reducing some offenses from misdemeanors to infractions — and treating all infractions as civil actions — lawmakers created a lower standard of proof for guilt and took away the state's requirement of supplying defendants with a lawyer.

And by calling the offenses a "civil action," it allowed judges to make default judgments against people who do not appear and levy fines and court costs. For misdemeanors, the courts issue a warrant to force no-shows to appear.

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