Nixon lets Missouri criminal code overhaul become law

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 | 7:21 p.m. CDT; updated 8:17 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 13, 2014

CLARIFICATION: The revised criminal code became law Tuesday, but its provisions do not take effect until 2017.

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon allowed a massive overhaul of the state's criminal code to become law without his signature Tuesday after supporters agreed to quickly advance legislation to correct some mistakes.

Nixon faced a Tuesday deadline to act on the bill that creates new classes of felonies and misdemeanors. It cleared the legislature late last month, and Nixon had previously expressed concerns that the roughly 600-page bill was too ambitious and could contain mistakes.

But the Democratic governor said he decided to let the bill become law after supporters committed to immediately work on a measure to fix some errors before lawmakers adjourn for the year on Friday.

"This is an important and complex endeavor. I want to thank the members of the General Assembly for working with us to get it right," he said.

Nixon said the bill could weaken the state's drunken-driving laws. He argued it would make a driver's refusal to take a breath test inadmissible during trial if the defendant was older than 21. Supporters said the additional bill that is expected to pass this week will correct this and other concerns identified by the governor's office.

The provisions of the measure that became law Tuesday take effect in January 2017. The measure creates a new felony punishment range that carries a three- to 10-year prison term for certain crimes, bridging the gap between existing classes that carry an authorized jail term between five and 15 years and one that stipulates a maximum four-year prison stint. A new misdemeanor class will be instituted to exclude jail time as a possibility, an option that hadn't existed. Fines will also be raised to address inflation.

The overhaul reduces possible prison sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes, while imposing harsher penalties in other areas like sexual assault and driving while intoxicated.

When the measure's provisions take effect, jail time will be off the table for first-time offenders convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana. Possessing up to 35 grams of the drug is currently punishable by up to a year in prison.

The bill will add incest as an aggravating factor for all sex crimes, which lets people be charged at a higher crime classification with longer jail terms. Drunken drivers who kill someone while on the road will also face higher maximum prison sentences.

This year's effort marks the first comprehensive rewrite of Missouri's criminal code since 1979. That criminal code overhaul also had a two-year delayed effective date to alleviate concerns that the bill contained errors.

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