Enhancing DWI sentences with prior convictions

In this case, Defendant/Appellant was convicted of driving while intoxicated following a jury trial in the Circuit Court of Platte County. The trial court found that Defendant was a habitual offender due to six prior intoxication-related traffic offenses. The Court entered a conviction for the class B felony of driving while intoxicated and sentenced him accordingly. Defendant appealed.

While he argued three points, only one is covered in this post. Specifically,  the trial court erred in finding he was a habitual offender because the State’s evidence was insufficient to prove two of his prior convictions qualify as intoxication-related traffic offenses(“IRTOs”).  He argued a 1996 amendment narrowed the definition of “driving” such that it no longer includes “being in actual physical control” of a vehicle.

He argued that two of his convictions from 1993 may have involved only being in physical control of the vehicle rather than physically driving or operating the vehicle as “driving” and “operating” were defined at the time of his present offense. He pointed out that the removal of the phrase “or being in actual physical control” from the statute would thus make those convictions no longer IRTOs.

Defendant’s issue was whether the evidence presented by the State showing that he had two 1993 convictions for “DRIVING WHILE INTOXICATED” is sufficient evidence to support a finding beyond a reasonable doubt that the conduct giving rise to those convictions was for driving or operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated, given that he might have been convicted for conduct (being in physical control rather than physically driving or operating) that would not constitute an IRTO at the time of his present (2017) offense.

The Appellate Court ended up denying this first point. The Court held that the trial court did not err in finding that the State’s evidence was sufficient to prove that Defendant’s prior convictions qualified as intoxication-related traffic offenses for purposes of sentence enhancement. 

The evidence included records from the driving while intoxicated tracking system (DWITS) and the Department of Revenue showing that Defendant was convicted for driving while intoxicated. And the Defendant presented no evidence or argument that these convictions were for conduct other than driving or operating.

The State had argued that, at minimum, the State’s evidence (the DWITS and DOR records indicating that Defendant was “driving” (while intoxicated) established a prima facie case that Defendant had a sufficient number of priors, and therefore, it was incumbent on Defendant to introduce evidence that the convictions did not occur or were for conduct that no longer constitutes an IRTO.

Defendant contended that the trial court erred in finding him to be a habitual DWI offender, because there was insufficient evidence to prove that two of his six prior convictions qualified as intoxication-related traffic offenses(“IRTOs”). Driving while intoxicated is a class B felony if the defendant is a habitual offender, whereas the offense is a class C felony if the defendant is a chronic offender.

Section 577.010 of state statues establishes that a “habitual offender” is a person found guilty of five or more IRTOs committed on separate occasions, while a “chronic offender” is a person who has been found guilty of four or more such IRTOs.

Then Section 577.023.4 provides: “Evidence offered as proof of the defendant’s status as a. . . habitual offender. . . shall include but not be limited to evidence of findings of guilt received by a search of the records of the Missouri uniform law enforcement system, including criminal history records from the central repository or records from the driving while intoxicated tracking system (DWITS) maintained by the Missouri state highway patrol, or the certified driving record maintained by the Missouri department of revenue. The State has the burden to prove prior IRTOs beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Appellate Court stated: “Although the State’s evidence does not entirely exclude the possibility that [Defendant] may have been convicted for conduct that no longer qualifies as an IRTO, “we cannot say here that it was unreasonable for the trial court to infer that [Defendant’s past]conviction[s]for ‘driving while intoxicated’ [were]conviction[s]for driving while intoxicated.” Cordell, 500 S.W.3d at 347.Once the state made its prima facie showing, [Defendant] was capable of making appropriate arguments and/or introducing evidence to rebut the reasonable inference that the convictions constituted valid IRTOs under the statute. However, absent such a showing by [Defendant], we cannot say that the trial court’s inference was unreasonable.”

Therefore, enough evidence existed to convict Defendant as a habitual offender.

The following judges heard the case: Witt, Hardwick and Chapman. The Opinion was written by Judge Thomas N. Chapman.

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