The phrase “moral turpitude” appears in dozens of Missouri statutory sections. That phrase usually appears in statutes listing grounds for denying or revoking a license or certificate (i.e. to practice medicine or to teach) or to remove someone from an official position. However, unlike several other states, until recently, no Missouri court had determined whether driving while intoxicated qualified as a crime of moral turpitude. 

In Owens v. Missouri State Board of Nursing, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District determined that the Missouri State Board of Nursing should not have revoked Jeannie Owens’ nursing license because driving while intoxicated was not a crime of moral turpitude or a crime reasonably related to her ability to practice as a nurse. Because no Missouri court had yet to answer this question, the Western District based its decision on rulings from courts in Alabama, Vermont, Tennessee, California, South Carolina, Texas and Indiana. After analyzing the reasoning of the courts in those other states, the Western District found “persuasive [those] cases holding that driving while intoxicated is not a crime of moral turpitude, especially when dealing with a first offense and a conviction as a misdemeanor.” 

FACTS OF THE CASE

On May 14, 2009, contrary to the prescription instructions, Jeannie Owens took two muscle relaxer pills and an antibiotic before driving to work. When she pulled into the parking lot, she began to feel dizzy and hit another car. According to the police report, the responding officer found Ms. Owens’ car parked “on top of” the other vehicle and noted that Ms. Owens’ clothes were on inside out and backwards and that she was confused and unable to understand questions. On January 4, 2011, Ms. Owens pled guilty to one Class B misdemeanor count of “driving while intoxicated – drug intoxication.” Ms. Owens’ guilty plea was her first conviction for driving while intoxicated.

Over two-and-half years later, the Missouri State Board of Nursing filed a complaint against Ms. Owens. Following a hearing, the Board issued its Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. The Board determined that the guilty plea was sufficient cause to take disciplinary action and that “[a] nurse in an impaired condition is a danger to herself and her patients.” The Board concluded that the “appropriate level of discipline for Owens was revocation of her nursing license ‘in order to safeguard the health of the public.’” Shortly thereafter, Ms. Owens filed a petition for judicial review of the Board’s decision. The Circuit Court reversed the Board’s decision, and then the Board appealed that reversal.

REASONING OF THE COURT OF APPEALS

Under Missouri law, the Board is empowered to determine discipline for a licensed nurse if the Board possesses certified records for an offense involving the qualifications, functions, or duties of a nurse or for an offense involving moral turpitude. MO.REV.STAT. § 335.066.16(1)(a). In reaching the decision to revoke Ms. Owens’ license, the Board concluded that her DWI “was an offense involving moral turpitude and involving the qualifications, functions, and duties of a nurse.” 

On appeal, the Western District noted that the definition of “moral turpitude” is “an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a” person owes to society. After examining the definition of the phrase, the court concluded that “driving while intoxicated is irresponsible,” there was nothing “in this case that suggests that Owens committed an act of ‘baseness, vileness or depravity.” The court also determined that “nothing within the offense of driving while intoxicated relates to or is connected or linked to the qualifications, functions, or duties of a nurse.” Thus, the court concluded that the Board overstepped its authority when it revoked Ms. Owens’ license.

Although the Owens court declared that driving while intoxicated is not a crime of moral turpitude, it nonetheless left open the possibility that driving while intoxicated could still be grounds for the Board to revoke a nurse’s license. The court specifically noted that such an offense could implicate other provisions of MO.REV.STAT. § 335.066.2. 

Additionally, the court noted that Ms. Owens was a first time offender and that hers was a misdemeanor conviction. The Owens court did not make any pronouncements about whether a felony conviction or repeated convictions could qualify as crimes of moral turpitude. Thus, the court left open the possibility that a felony conviction or a conviction for repeated DWI offenses might qualify as a crime of moral turpitude.