St. Louis police impose ‘No Refusal Zone’ for suspected drunk drivers

Just in time for New Year’s Eve, the streets of St. Louis have been declared a “No Refusal Zone” for those suspected of driving drunk.

St. Louis Police Chief Sam Dotson and St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer M. Joyce said Monday that too many drivers spurn the standard Breathalyzer test, despite Missouri laws that result in the suspension of their driver license for that refusal.

“We were just looking for a way to more effectively hold drunk drivers accountable,” Joyce said during a series of news conferences. “The goal is to make the streets safer and save lives.”

Under the new policy, drivers still will be taken to one of the area stations and offered a Breathalyzer test. If the driver refuses, police will seek a search warrant for the blood test. Once a warrant is obtained — often using electronic means — the driver will be taken to a hospital where the blood can be drawn, Dotson said. The process is expected to take 60 to 90 minutes.

St. Louis police make 20 to 25 drunken driving arrests each month, and about half refuse tests. While suspected drunken drivers can be prosecuted without Breathalyzer evidence, Joyce said, convictions are harder to obtain.

Many who refuse are motorists with prior records of driving while intoxicated, she said. Licensed Missouri drivers effectively consent in advance to such tests and risk a one-year loss of their license should they refuse, but in doing so they deprive prosecutors of a key piece of evidence for a DWI conviction.

A 2012 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that more than one in five suspected drunk drivers nationwide refuse to submit to tests of their blood-alcohol content.

Joyce said St. Louis is “tailor-made” for the program because its smaller geographic footprint makes it easier to gather needed signatures for warrants.

Other law enforcement agencies in Missouri and elsewhere have similar no-refusal programs. Christian County Prosecuting Attorney Amy J. Fite said the program began there in 2011 and is available to all law enforcement officers in the county with about 78,000 population.

“At this point in time I think we have a very good system in place,” Fite said. “The search warrants are available to law enforcement so they can easily get to a form and fill in the information they need.”

Officers can forward the warrant application and supporting documentation to a prosecutor, who reviews it and may sign it if there is probable cause, she said. The application can be forwarded electronically to a judge for final determination.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has supported no-refusal policies like the one St. Louis is enacting, said April Barthelmass, victim advocate for the organization’s Gateway affiliate.

Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, said the group will monitor the St. Louis program to ensure warrants are based on probable cause and the scope of the tests don’t venture beyond intoxicating substances.

Earlier this year, the American Civil Liberties Union successfully challenged a warrantless blood test for alcohol concentration after a Cape Girardeau man was stopped by a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper.

The motorist first refused to submit to a breath test, and then refused a blood test after being taken to a hospital. The officer ordered the test anyway, and the results showed the driver’s blood-alcohol level was above the legal limit.

The trial court excluded the blood test because it was taken without a warrant, and the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately agreed that warrants are necessary, absent exigent circumstances.

Criminal defense lawyer Scott Rosenblum expressed skepticism that warrants would be sought on every refusal — including first-time offenders.

“I don’t think you would see it on a practical basis that it would work,” he said.

Ken Leiser is the transportation writer at the Post-Dispatch. Read his Along for the Ride column online and every Sunday in the newspaper.

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