As a Missouri car crash lawyer, I have followed the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s series on problems with Missouri drunk driving laws with great interest. On Nov. 1, the newspaper published a third installment in the series, on the revocation of driver’s licenses for drivers who refuse to take a breath test. Like many states, Missouri has an “implied consent” law allowing the Department of Revenue to take away the driver’s licenses of people who refuse an alcohol or drug test — in Missouri, they lose their licenses for a year. But according to the Post-Dispatch, prosecutors routinely fail to enforce the rule, often restoring licenses to drivers as part of a plea bargain. As a result, the newspaper said, more than 10,000 drivers who refused the breathalyzer have kept their licenses since 2000.
The driver’s license suspension is officially separate from the DWI case against an allegedly drunk driver. Drivers may defend themselves in the criminal case, but they can also appeal the one-year license suspension in civil court. Many drivers do so, which requires an attorney to represent the DOR in the case. Unfortunately, the DOR does not have enough attorneys to handle every case; county prosecutors are typically brought in as substitutes. And those prosecutors often tell the court to that drivers should keep their licenses, in exchange for guilty pleas in the underlying DWI cases — an act that the Post-Dispatch describes as “giving up.” Records reported by the newspaper found that prosecutors in St. Louis city and county allowed test refuses to keep their licenses in about half of all cases between July of 2008 and July of 2009. Statewide, that rate was 8% — but after including cases reported as outright losses in court, it was 50%.
This type of plea deal was extended to driver William Downs in 2007 after he was arrested for DWI and refused a breath or blood test. He had been arrested twice before for drug crimes and his live-in girlfriend had called to complain that he had stolen her painkillers. However, when it was time for his license suspension case, St. Charles County prosecutors told the court that he should keep his license, in exchange for a guilty plea and a promise to get addiction testing. Three weeks later, Downs took drugs, climbed into his pickup truck and drove down Interstate 70, where he rear-ended a smaller pickup driven by Charles Fullhage, an agricultural engineering professor at the University of Missouri. Fullhage died, and Downs is now in prison.
As a St. Louis auto accident lawyer, I’m disappointed that Missouri is letting so many drunk drivers slip through the cracks. As the article points out, part of the problem can be attributed to funding — DOR attorneys have a much higher rate of license suspensions, but the state hasn’t provided money to hire more. But just as importantly, prosecutors shouldn’t, and shouldn’t be able to, use license suspensions as part of plea bargains in the supposedly separate DWI cases. In other states with automatic license suspension, even an acquittal of the drunk driving charge won’t necessarily save the driver’s license. Until Missouri is willing to change its laws, its spending or both, we may pay the price in lives.
The problems with drunk driving are almost too clear and well-established to list. Drunk driving leads to bad decisions, loss of motor control, and ultimately, preventable deaths and disabilities. At the Lowe Law Firm, we aggressively represent people who have lost a loved one or suffered serious injuries at the hands of a driver who irresponsibly chose to drive while intoxicated. Even when prosecutors can’t or won’t file criminal charges, our southern Illinois motor vehicle accident attorneys can help families seek justice and financial compensation through the civil courts. In a lawsuit, victims may claim compensation for all of their injuries and losses, including physical pain and emotional suffering. They may also claim compensation for the steep financial costs of treating a serious injury or losing a loved one’s income and help forever.
If you or someone you love has been hurt by a drunk driver in Missouri or southern Illinois and you’d like to learn more about your legal options, you should call the Lowe Law Firm right away. We offer free, no-obligation consultations, so there’s no risk in speaking to us about your case and your rights. To set one up, you can call toll-free at 1-877-678-3400 or send a message through our Web site.