Drunk drivers get a break from Missouri Supreme Court

For decades, Missouri lawmakers regularly tweaked drunken-driving laws to toughen them. But along the way, they neglected to cut an old paragraph that did the opposite. As a result, a recent Missouri Supreme Court ruling now allows many repeat drunken drivers to avoid felony charges, and it probably will allow others to get out of prison.

The unanimous decision centered on an old clause left near the bottom of the state’s drunken-driving law since the early 1980s. The old clause said that if someone received a suspended sentence after pleading guilty in municipal court to driving while intoxicated, that conviction could not be counted toward state felony charges, which prosecutors can file on a driver’s third offense.

Whenever two conflicting standards exist within a criminal law, the defendant gets the lesser penalty, the high court said. Defense attorneys say the court’s ruling must be applied retroactively. Prosecutors are unsure, but if so, inmates convicted of some DWI felonies will get out of prison, and thousands of people could have their old felony convictions overturned.

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