DWI bill heard in Senate, vote next week
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DWI bill heard in Senate, vote next week

Date: April 19, 2010
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 1695

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 House passed last week will not be one that his committee does.

"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 provsions that would allow police officers to, without a warrant, obtain a blood sample of a driver they believe to be intoxicated. 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 fiscal note, 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 possibilty of a jail sentence. At the same time, it would increase penalties for aggravated offenders, drivers arrested with over a 0.15 blood-alcohol level, and those arrested with minors as passengers.

Cathy Kelly, the director of the Missouri Public Defender System, said 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."

However, the warrantless blood redaction provision created much of the opposition. Dan Dodson, speaking on behalf of the state's defense attorney association, said it would be ruled unconstitutional. He also said that 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, but a woman's blood sample was omitted from an Iowa 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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