Missouri Senate to vote on DWI bill next week

Tuesday, April 20, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:58 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 20, 2010

*CORRECTION: Cathy Kelly is the deputy director of the Missouri Public Defender System. An earlier version of this article misstated her position.

JEFFERSON CITY — Legislative efforts to close discrepancies in the state's drunk driving laws were met with skepticism from the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman.

Before opening the hearing Monday night, Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, surveyed the crowd of potential witnesses and assured them that the bill the Missouri House passed last week will be different from the one that his committee passes.

"I can look into a crystal ball and say this will undergo serious revision," Bartle said, expressing concerns that the legislation would increase the State Department of Correction's burden. "I don't want to blow a massive fiscal note on this thing when we're trying to balance our budget."

Currently, the bill that was passed through the House 123-28 last Wednesday includes provisions that would allow police officers to obtain a blood sample of a driver they believe to be intoxicated without a warrant. It would also establish DWI-only court dockets, which the bill's sponsor, Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, said would allow judges to more easily enforce penalties evenly statewide.

"This creates a good balance between the municipal and state circuit courts," Stevenson said. "And it shores up a lot of discrepancies you tend to see from county-to-county."

In a move that Stevenson said was designed to lower the bill's cost, which currently totals over $500,000 per year, the bill would also lower the penalty for driving with a revoked license from a Class A misdemeanor to an infraction, with no possibility of a jail sentence. At the same time, it would increase penalties for repeat offenders, drivers arrested with more than a 0.15 blood-alcohol level and drivers with passengers age 16 and younger.

Cathy Kelly, the *deputy director of the Missouri Public Defender System, testified that changing the revoked license penalty would help lighten her caseload because public defenders aren't required to be offered in cases that can't result in jail time. She said the state is short 171 lawyers relative to their caseload, and she said the bill would remove the need for 13 of those.

"It's a step in the right direction," Kelly said. "Right now, we're in a caseload crisis."

The warrantless blood redaction provision created much of the opposition. Dan Dodson, speaking on behalf of the state's defense attorney association, testified that it would be ruled unconstitutional. He also said the provision to ban refusals of breath tests to measure blood alcohol content was overrated.

"It would seem to be, on its face, a fourth amendment violation," Dodson said. "And I think we're overstating the importance of being a 'no refusal' state. In almost any case where people refuse breath tests, they are visibly intoxicated so it doesn't matter."

In court, a police officer's testimony that a driver was intoxicated can be enough evidence for a conviction, Dodson said.

There is mixed precedent on the constitutionality of warrantless blood samples. The Arizona legislature passed a similar warrantless blood draw provision a few years ago, and it was upheld in the state supreme court. In Iowa, though, a woman's blood sample was omitted from a case by the state supreme court there, which said it violated the state constitution.

Three other states — Texas, South Dakota and North Carolina — also allow for warrantless blood samples.

"You would figure that these proposals have already undergone some judicial test already," Bartle said. "I don't know that we're breaking new ground here."

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