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Nixon lets criminal code overhaul become law

Nixon lets criminal code overhaul become law

May 13th, 2014 in News

Gov. Jay Nixon allowed a massive overhaul of the state's criminal laws to take effect Tuesday without his signature after supporters agreed to quickly advance legislation to correct some mistakes.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chariman Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, and committee member Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City - who have handled the criminal code bill in the Senate - said the bill making the changes that Nixon wants should be debated today.

Since it makes changes to a bill the House already passed, Dixon said, it will have to go back to the House - but House Judiciary Chairman Stan Cox, R-Sedalia, and member Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, have been involved in writing the changes.

So Dixon and Justus expect the House to approve the re-written bill. The governor told reporters Tuesday afternoon if the bill does what he wants it to, he will sign it.

Nixon faced a Tuesday deadline to act on the main bill that reorganizes the existing criminal laws and creates new classes of felonies and misdemeanors. It cleared the Legislature late last month and Nixon had previously expressed concerns that the roughly 600-page bill was too ambitious and could contain mistakes.

But the Democratic governor said he decided to let the bill become law after supporters committed to work immediately on a measure fixing some errors, before lawmakers adjourn for the year on Friday.

"This is an important and complex endeavor. I want to thank the members of the General Assembly for working with us to get it right," he said.

Nixon said the bill could weaken the state's drunken-driving laws. He argued it would make a driver's refusal to take a breath test inadmissible during trial if the defendant was over the age of 21. Supporters said the additional bill that is expected to pass this week will correct this and other concerns identified by the governor's office.

The measure that becomes law Tuesday creates a new felony punishment range that carries a three- to 10-year prison term for certain crimes, bridging the gap between existing classes that carry an authorized jail term between five and 15 years and one that stipulates a maximum four-year prison stint. A new misdemeanor class will be instituted to exclude jail time as a possibility, an option that currently doesn't exist. Fines will also be raised to address inflation.

The overhaul reduces possible prison sentences for some nonviolent drug crimes, while imposing harsher penalties in other areas like sexual assault and driving while intoxicated.

When the measure's provisions take effect in January 2017, jail time will be off the table for first-time offenders convicted of possessing less than 10 grams of marijuana. Possessing up to 35 grams of the drug is currently punishable by up to a year in prison.

The bill will add incest as an aggravating factor for all sex crimes, which lets people be charged at a higher crime classification with longer jail terms. Drunken drivers who kill someone while on the road will also face higher maximum prison sentences.

This year's effort marks the first comprehensive rewrite of Missouri's criminal code since 1979. That criminal code overhaul also had a two-year delayed effective date to alleviate concerns that the bill contained errors.

Bob Watson of the News Tribune staff contributed information used in this story.

Criminal Code is SB491