Mo. debates ways to handle drunken driving cases

Thursday, November 5, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Officials examining how Missouri handles drunken driving cases agreed Wednesday that record keeping must improve to ensure drunken drivers get the right punishment and are less likely to repeat.

More than a dozen prosecutors, judges, activists, law officers and state officials met at a summit convened by Gov. Jay Nixon to discuss ways Missouri can improve how drunken drivers are prosecuted, punished and treated. The Democratic governor called the meeting after the St. Louis Post-Dispatch highlighted how record-keeping problems have made it difficult to know the number of times a motorist has been convicted of impaired driving.

The Post-Dispatch in a series of articles reported that many repeat offenders are not charged with felonies when that is an option. Also, courts in the St. Louis area frequently granted plea bargains that kept the cases off criminal records.

Nixon said Wednesday that Missouri's current system is unacceptable and called for changes to improve transparency and consistency and to ensure offenders receive the proper punishment. He called for proposals that would fill gaps and truly fix problems in handling driving while intoxicated offenses.

"Too often the most dangerous, chronic DWI offenders are allowed to keep driving, keep offending and keep endangering or killing innocent drivers," Nixon said.

Lawmakers are expected to consider the changes during their annual session that starts in January, and a version is likely to be filed even before the session begins. Some previous efforts by lawmakers to change Missouri's drunken driving laws have created problems, which includes new elements that conflict with older parts of the law.

After several hours spent offering suggestions and critiques Wednesday, there were few universally accepted ideas for how to fix the system. Those ideas included:

-- Promoting special drunken driving courts that help offenders deal with substance abuse issues.

-- Requiring impaired driving cases to be prosecuted in state courts by county prosecutors instead of as municipal ordinance violations.

-- Limiting the penalties able to be traded away in plea agreements.

-- Establishing a public database to track drunken drivers, modeled after Missouri's sex offender registry.

-- Towing people's cars to limit driving.

-- Using ignition interlock devices that won't allow the vehicle to be started unless the driver is sober instead of suspending or revoking driver's licenses.

The two common themes were that the system for keeping track of drunken driving offenses needed to be streamlined and improved and the conclusion that threatening the loss of driving privileges for those who refuse alcohol breath tests was no longer working.

Morley Swingle, the prosecutor for Cape Girardeau County, said improving the record system should be a priority.

"If nothing else is done, the No. 1 thing is to make finding DWI priors so easy that even a caveman could do it," Swingle said.

Drivers in Missouri are required to submit to alcohol breath tests when requested by law officers. Those who refuse are supposed to lose driving privileges for one year. Currently, that's an administrative penalty handled by the state Department of Revenue and not a criminal one.

But several participants said lawmakers should consider setting up criminal penalties for refusing a breath test because more motorists are refusing and many are not losing driving privileges.

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