By Kelly Just, Special Projects Executive Producer - email
INDEPENDENCE, MO (KCTV) -
When a driver refuses to take an alcohol breathalyzer test in Missouri, the law dictates an automatic one-year license revocation. Many of these drivers don't want to give up the keys without a fight.
KCTV5 discovered they are staying behind the wheel for months, even years, after a DWI arrest.
A caller urged KCTV5 to visit the Jackson County courtroom in Independence where the cases of drivers who refused to blow into a breathalyzer are adjudicated.
Last December, 40 refusal cases filled the docket of associate court Judge Twila Rigby, who presides over the Division 30 of 16th Circuit. She has been a judge since 1997 in Jackson County.
The plaintiffs, suing to keep their licenses, had been fighting the Missouri Department of Revenue for as little as a couple of months to more than two years.
Because the cases involve drunken driving charges, Missouri law states they are supposed to be given top priority on a judge's docket.
However, Rigby decided to continue all but a few.
The following week, Rigby's docket held 100 different refusal cases. This time, she heard two trials then rubber stamped dozens of continuances.
KCTV5 contacted Mothers Against Drunk Driving about those two days in court.
"We need a cleanup in division 30," said Bud Balke, MADD court coordinator.
Balke, who has been monitoring Missouri courts for decades, was stunned to learn about one particular case before the judge.
Michael C. Pittman was stopped by Grandview police back on Oct. 21, 2010. He refused a breathalyzer test that day. Instead of having his license revoked within 15 days of his DWI arrest, Pittman's been allowed to drive on the 15 stays ordered one after another by Rigby.
"Right now we have a judge who actually has cases that are longer than a standard involuntary manslaughter, second-degree murder case in the state of Missouri," said Balke.
KCTV5 contacted Pittman's attorney to ask about the court allowing his client to drive for more than two years without a trial. The response was a "no comment."
While the Pittman case jumped out as particularly egregious to Balke, the MADD court coordinator expressed disgust at the number of other cases that have lingered in Jackson County for so long.
"I'm astounded to see so many continuances, and the stay orders extended every month, every month, every month," Balke said.
The court declined KCTV5's request to interview Rigby about the numerous continuances and long-outstanding cases in her courtroom.
Valerie Hartman, spokeswoman for the 16th Judicial Circuit Court, responded with a written statement:
"There will always be people whose situations and whose cases fall outside the norm, but when taken as a whole, the circuit court in Jackson County is resolving cases at a similar rate as courts across the state."
At first glance, that comparison appears accurate. State numbers reveal that, on average, Jackson County disposed of its 2012 breathalyzer refusal cases in nine months time.
Across the state in St. Louis County, it took about 10 months to do the same.
However, Jackson County had four judges hearing these cases as compared to St. Louis County's two judges. With half the staff of Jackson County, St. Louis County was given triple the number of refusal cases: 1,644 to 568.
No matter what the state says, Judge Vernon E. Scoville III is displeased with how long it has been taking for Jackson County to dispose of its breathalyzer refusal cases.
Scoville has made a name for himself in the past for unique anti-drinking and driving techniques, from confiscating license plates to handing out key chains that read, "If I drive, I will go to prison."
The new year brought a reshuffling of case assignments in Jackson County.
Scoville was handed all Judge Rigby's breathalyzer refusal cases. KCTV5 was there on day one as Scoville told a room full of attorneys the delays were coming to an end.
"These cases will not linger more than six months," Scoville said.
A few minutes later, Scoville reiterated that stance to the lawyers and their clients in the gallery.
"We only do six-month continuances," Scoville said. "I've got one that's been continued for two years."
One of the lawyers responded with an "Oh, wow."
"Well that is ending," Scoville replied.
Just in case anyone hadn't caught those two warnings, Scoville offered a third for all to hear.
"You know guys, six months is way plenty of time to have these cases," he said.
A few days later, Scoville took action against Pittman, the man driving for more than two years on the court's borrowed time. Scoville issued a license suspension. The hearing to revoke the license for more than a year could happen as early as next week.
Jackson County's decision to put these refusal cases in the hands of a new judge couldn't have come at a better time for MADD. Balke says the group was in the process of requesting the removal of Rigby.
Copyright 2013 KCTV (Meredith Corp.) All rights reserved.
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