JEFFERSON CITY — Motorists on Missouri highways will need to give extra space to state Transportation Department vehicles under one of several new state laws taking effect Tuesday. Meanwhile, a lawsuit in federal court is trying to block another new law that makes it illegal to disturb worship services.
The new traffic law requires drivers to change lanes and yield for stopped transportation agency vehicles displaying flashing amber or white lights — just like motorists already must do for stopped police cars and other emergency vehicles. Plus, the Transportation Department's motorist assistance and emergency response vehicles now will be allowed to display a red light and siren to help them more quickly respond to emergencies.
Many bills passed during Missouri's 2012 legislative session take effect Tuesday. Here's a look at some of the state's new laws:
Allows more billboards along Missouri highways to be upgraded with electronic or digital displays.
Reduces the disparity in sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Under prior law, a smaller quantity of crack cocaine could trigger the same sentence as a larger quantity of powder cocaine.
Allows people convicted of certain nonviolent crimes to shorten their time under the supervision of probation or parole offices by good behavior. Also gives probation and parole officers new authority to order offenders to short jail stays for minor violations, and allows judges to impose 120-day shock sentences behind bars as an alternative to potentially longer prison stays for probation or parole revocations.
Creates the misdemeanor of intentionally disturbing or interrupting a "house of worship" with profanity, rude or indecent behavior or noise that breaks the solemnity of the service. A pending federal lawsuit claims the law infringes on free-speech rights.
Expands an existing law requiring drivers to move over a lane for stopped emergency vehicles by adding Missouri Department of Transportation vehicles.
"It is important that our folks get to the scene so emergency responders can work more quickly and normal traffic flow can be restored," said Eileen Rackers, the department's traffic and highway safety engineer.
The Department of Transportation estimates 2,400 of its employees work each day near the roadside. To remind motorists of the new law, transportation officials plan to erect about 120 signs throughout Missouri this year.
The broadening of Missouri's "move over law" is among several new statutes taking effect Tuesday. Another new transportation-related law will allow more billboards along Missouri highways to be upgraded with electronic or digital displays.
Missouri's Republican-controlled legislature also approved several bills focused on crime.
One measure makes it a misdemeanor to interrupt a "house of worship" with profane language, rude or indecent behavior or noise that breaks the solemnity of the service. Penalties could include up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. However, a lawsuit filed last week contends the law is too vague and will infringe on free speech rights guaranteed by the state and U.S. constitutions.
The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two individuals and two groups that picket outside churches against clergy who allegedly sexually abused children. A hearing has been set for Sept. 11.
Two other new Missouri laws change how certain criminals are punished.
Nonviolent offenders now will earn credit toward completing their probation and parole sentences for good behavior. For every month they go without a violation, they will get 30 days of credit. But if they slip up, probation and parole officers will have new authority to order them to jail for hours or days without a full hearing on whether to revoke their probation or parole. Judges also could impose a 120-day sentence as an alternative to longer prison sentences from a revocation.
Another new law takes aim at Missouri's disparity in punishment between people convicted of crack and powder cocaine crimes. The new law reduces Missouri's 75-to-1 disparity ratio in sentencing for the two types of cocaine to a ratio of about 18-to-1.
That means people convicted of producing, distributing or possessing more than 8 grams of crack will face the same punishment as those with at least 150 grams of powder cocaine. And those with at least 24 grams of crack will face the same prison sentence as those with at least 450 grams of powder.
Previously, people with more than 2 grams of crack faced the same prison sentence as those with more than 150 grams of powder cocaine. And those with at least 6 grams for crack faced the same penalty as those with at least 450 grams of powder.
Changes in the drug sentencing laws came after federal law was changed in 2010 to reduce a 100-to-1 sentencing ratio. A national group that advocates for criminal justice reforms had urged more than a dozen states, including Missouri, to eliminate sentencing disparities in state drug laws.