ST. LOUIS — St. Louis police and prosecutors are taking a hard-line stance against drunken driving under a new plan announced Monday.
The "No Refusal Zone" plan calls for police to immediately seek a search warrant for anyone suspected of driving while intoxicated who refuses to take a breath test. The search warrant will allow blood to be drawn so it can be analyzed to determine if the driver should face criminal charges. The warrant was already an option, but officials say the new plan makes it easier and faster to obtain.
"If we can get people to think twice before they drive drunk, than we've saved lives and that's what this is all about," St. Louis Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce said.
A 2008 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report showed that the average breath test refusal rate is 22.4 percent. But in St. Louis, about half of those stopped for suspected drunken driving refuse, said Susan Ryan, a spokeswoman for the circuit attorney's office.
Nationally, 10,322 people died in drunken-driving accidents in 2012, up 4.6 percent from 2011, said Troy Green, a spokesman for the NHTSA. Missouri had 280 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2012, up from 258 in 2011, according to NHTSA's Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Statistics for St. Louis were not available.
Joyce said many of the St. Louis drivers who refuse a breath test are chronic offenders with multiple convictions for impaired driving.
Refusal to take a breath test in Missouri costs the driver his or her license for a year. But Joyce said many find loopholes in that law or simply drive without a license.
"They've figured it out," Joyce said. "If I'm a chronic drunk driver and I get pulled over, I know my odds (of beating a drunken driving conviction) are better if I take that course of action and refuse the test."
Several Missouri counties have implemented similar laws for those who refuse breath tests — Christian, Platte, Warren, Franklin and Buchanan among them.
In St. Louis, a prosecutor and judge will be on-call at all times to help expedite approval of search warrant requests. Joyce said city officials have already worked with hospitals to expedite blood tests, and emergency medical technicians working for the fire department are being trained so they can eventually administer the tests. Police officers themselves will not draw blood as part of the program, Joyce said.
Joyce expects the number of refusals to drop as word spreads about the new program.
"Once people realize it's no longer a good option to game the system, they'll go ahead and submit," she said.
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