Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mixed drinks, mixed messages in Nixon's call for stronger drunk driving laws

While it is easy to applaud Gov. Jay Nixon's call for stronger drunk driving laws, the action comes only a few short weeks after Nixon appointed someone with a history of abusing the current laws as his acting director of economic development.

Former Rep. Katie Steele-Danner, a top fundraiser for Nixon during his gubernatorial campaign, has refused to take breathalyzer tests on two occasions after being stopped by the law for erratic driving. The following comes from the Sept. 14 Turner Report:

On March 13, 2007, the Missouri Southern District Court of Appeals ordered Taney County Circuit Court Judge Tony Williams to revoke Ms. Steele-Danner's driver's license, after Williams had restored her driving privileges in an earlier decision.

Ms. Danner-Steele, under her maiden name of Katie Steele, was a state representative from Kirksville, the state director of Bill Clinton's presidential campaign in 1992 and later was appointed by President Clinton as regional director for the Kansas City office of the Department of Health and Human Services. She is married to former State Senator Steve Danner, a close advisor to former Speaker of the House Bob Griffin and current adjutant general.

According to the appellate court decision, "Kathleen Steele-Danner was stopped by Officer Shawn Teitsort for speeding. The officer noticed a strong odor of alcohol on her breath. When asked how much she had to drink, she stated she had one glass of wine. (She) was asked to perform field sobriety tests and was subsequently arrested for driving while intoxicated.
"After arriving at the Branson Police Department and reading Missouri's Implied Consent law to (Ms. Steele-Danner) Officer Teitsort requested that the respondent submit to a breath test. She refused and her license was revoked."

The decision came down to whether Teitsort had reason to believe Ms. Steele-Danner was driving drunk.

Respondent had to steady herself using the car door when exiting her vehicle. He observed her swaying as she walked. Her eyes appeared bloodshot and "staring." She continued to sway during the horizontal gaze nystagmus test ("HGN") and the officer noted a lack of "smooth pursuit" in both eyes and a distinct nystagmus at maximum deviation, with an onset prior to forty-five degrees, indicating intoxication.
When Respondent performed the walk-and-turn test, she did not take the correct number of steps, used her arms for balance and did not make a proper turn. Because she stepped off of the line three times, the officer deemed her unable to complete the test. Likewise, she put her foot down three or more times on the one-leg stand test and was unable to complete the test. Based upon his training, experience, and observations, Officer Teitsort testified that he formed the opinion that Respondent was intoxicated and placed her under arrest for driving while intoxicated. On the issue of the officer's credibility, as the Director points out, the trial court put its stamp of approval on Officer Teitsort by indicating, "I believe [Officer Teitsort] administered the tests properly. In fact, that officer is one of the finest."

Judge Williams based his decision on Teitsort's comments during cross examination that he thought Ms. Steele-Danner was "borderline" and might not fail the breathalyzer test:

[Defense Counsel]: Okay. And you were surprised she didn't take the test?
[Officer]: Yes, sir.
[Defense counsel]: Because you thought she might not have been above a .08?
[Officer]: I believed she was borderline. That's correct.
[Defense Counsel]: Okay. You thought she might not have been above .08?
[Officer]: That's correct.

The appellate court gave the following summary of the case:

Respondent was stopped at 1:38 a.m. for speeding fourteen miles per hour over the speed limit. She had a strong odor of alcohol and bloodshot eyes, had trouble with balance and walking, and was uncertain in her turning. Respondent was unable to follow directions for the walk-and-turn test and admitted to drinking alcohol earlier during the evening. The trial court misapplied the law when it found Officer Teitsort's testimony that he was surprised when Respondent refused to take the test because the officer thought Respondent was borderline -- that there was a possibility she would pass the test -- negated the probable cause determination that she was driving her vehicle while in an intoxicated condition. In so doing, the trial court disregarded Officer Teitsort's objective and credible observation of Respondent's unusual and illegal motor vehicle operation and indicia of intoxication from field sobriety tests, which objectively constitute probable cause.

The decision was 2-1, with the dissenting judge agreeing that the case should be returned to Judge Williams, but only to determine if the officer had properly administered the field tests to give him probable cause.

Clay County Circuit Court records indicate Ms. Steele-Danner had her license taken away after refusing to take a breathalyzer test . Her driving privileges were restored Jan. 15, 1997, by Clay County Circuit Court Judge Rex Gabbert.


Anonymous said...

I agree with your hypocrisy point but I take issue with the characterization that requiring the State to prove its case against you in court (or exercising your right against self-incrimination) is “abusing the law.” On the other hand, I think trying to establish a system of punishment base on presumptions of guilt is abusing the Constitution. If the concept is a judge must suspend someone’s license based solely on the word of a police officer then why bother having judges?

Anonymous said...

There's a funny little missive that mentions Ms. Steele-Danner at

check it out!

Anonymous said...

If the officer thought she was "borderline" then that means she could not have been as intoxicated as he stated in the arrest report. In that instance, the conviction or arrest was justifiably vacated. The police cannot have it both ways.

But the above refers to that case only.