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Read our series in The Patriot Ledger Nov. 15-18, 2003.
A Patriot Ledger series: Summary | PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | UPDATES

STORIES

No jail for 85% convicted
2nd-time offenders already addicted, experts say
Lawyers advise: Refuse blood-alcohol test
Testing the breathalyzer

CASE
PROFILES

Michael Carey
Robert Dixon
Silvio L. Marangiello
Kevin R. McPhee
Mary Seaton
Gerard Sheehan
Mark E. Sullivan

GRAPHICS

PART 1
TIMELINE: How Massachusetts drunken driving law has changed
Alcohol's causes and effects
How local and state courts treat repeat drunken drivers
Busiest courts in state for drunken driving arraignments

PART 2
The cost of drunken driving

PART 3
Massachusetts fails compared with other states
Death toll from drunken driving



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Good lawyers, soft judges:
Drunks still drive

BERT LANE/For The Patriot Ledger
Silvio Marangiello, 31, of Pembroke covers his face as he is taken to court. He has had his license suspended or revoked six times.

No jail time for 85% of those convicted

Silvio L. Marangiello has a habit.

He drinks. He drives. He runs. He gets caught.

During the past seven years, the 31-year-old woodworker from Pembroke has been arrested for drunken driving five times, state records show.

He has paid thousands of dollars in fines, been ordered to undergo alcohol treatment and has lost his license for years at a time. During his seven years of driving drunk, his harshest sentence was a year in jail.

Marangiello, whose latest charge is pending in Plymouth District Court, illustrates what is wrong with the way Massachusetts treats habitual drunken drivers, experts say.

So do Mark E. Sullivan of Hanson, Mary Seaton of Marshfield and more than two dozen other South Shore drivers who are currently facing their third, fourth, fifth, even eighth drunken driving offenses.

Why are they still on the road?

Prosecutors, police and anti-drunken driving advocates say the answer lies in a 10,000-word state law that treats drunken driving as a petty crime, gives judges wide latitude in sentencing and allows even chronic drunken drivers to claim hardship to get their licenses back. An overloaded court system, cutbacks in alcohol treatment and a Legislature reluctant to adopt tougher sentencing mandates also contribute to the problem, they say.

All of this has combined to give Massachusetts one of the nation's worst track records for dealing with drunken drivers, both first-time and habitual offenders.

Consider the statistics:

  • Federal highway safety reports show that only four states have a greater percentage of alcohol-related fatalities than Massachusetts.
  • While the percentage of fatalities caused by drunken driving has declined nationally during the past 20 years, Massachusetts' has declined at a lower rate than the national average, and only marginally since 1993.
  • Massachusetts received a D-minus last year from Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The only lower grade was Montana's F.
  • Faced with the loss of federal highway money, Massachusetts this year became the last state in the nation to adopt the so-called "per se" law, which defines a blood-alcohol level of .08 as irrefutable proof in court that a person is legally drunk.

"Many people still believe that drunk driving was solved in the 1980s," said Barbara Harrington, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "People don't view this as a serious crime or a serious problem. ... They think more people die from murder than from drunken driving."

In fact, there are 17,000 drunken driving deaths every year in the United States and 16,000 murders.

Experts say keeping habitual offenders off the road would dramatically reduce the number of fatal accidents each year. Repeat offenders are 40 percent more likely to be involved in drunken driving accidents, which in Massachusetts cost families, taxpayers, insurance companies and the state a combined $1.8 billion a year.

But keeping a repeat offender off the road is difficult when the law sends prosecutors and judges mixed messages.

Massachusetts has mandatory minimum sentencing, but it also gives judges wide latitude in ordering alternative alcohol treatment instead.

The law also gives district attorneys the authority to seek felony indictments against habitual drunken drivers and prosecute the cases in Superior Court, yet it caps charges and sentencing at a fifth-offender level.
"One camp says lock them up and throw away the key. The other say these people need help. The bottom line is these people have to take responsibility for their actions."

"It doesn't matter if you're convicted for the 10th time or the 15th time, the maximum is five years," said Plymouth County District Attorney Tim Cruz.

Most drunken driving cases, however, are tried as misdemeanors in district courts, where the maximum sentence is 2½ years in jail.

A 2002 state Sentencing Commission report shows few defendants receive anything close to the maximum:

  • Of 7,306 drunken drivers convicted in the state's district courts last year, only 15 percent received any jail time.
  • Of those sentenced to jail, nearly 80 percent received eight months or less.
  • Only 1 percent received the maximum district court sentence of 2½ years.

A Patriot Ledger analysis of 282 drunken driving cases from Quincy, Hingham and Plymouth district courts for the past two years shows a similar trend:

  • Of 225 drunken drivers convicted for a second offense, only 8 percent received any jail time
  • More than three-quarters of 46 third-time offenders had part of their jail sentence suspended, reducing their actual time behind bars. Eleven percent received no jail sentence at all.
  • Most fourth-time offenders received 18 months in jail or less.

Sentencing becomes a larger issue when victims are involved.

District attorneys and anti-drunken driving advocates tell families of motor vehicle homicide victims to expect jail sentences of no more than 2½ years, even when the offender has a previous drunken driving conviction.

"It's very frustrating to wait for the case to come to trial a year or two later. And the sentences that are given out in (the family's) eyes are totally off base. We usually prepare them for that beforehand," said Mary Glavin, a victim and witness advocate at Brockton Superior Court.

Yet, despite calls by police, prosecutors and advocates for tougher sentences, some say more must be done to help drunken drivers kick their alcohol addiction. --

"You have to get them off the booze," said retired Quincy District Court Judge Albert Kramer, who sentenced first-offenders to a few days in jail and long-term alcohol treatment therapy.

Other states target repeat offenders by impounding their cars, adopting zero-tolerance alcohol policies for them, or assigning automatic felony status to three-time losers, forcing their cases to Superior Court.

One of the state's problems is that no agency tracks repeat drunken driving offenders as a group.

Another is that the state can't decide whether to treat repeat drunken drivers as criminals or alcoholics in need in treatment.

"One camp says lock them up and throw away the key. The other say these people need help," Stoughton police Lt. David Chamberlin said. "The bottom line is these people have to take responsibility for their actions."

Patriot Ledger reporter Robert Sears contributed to this story.

Dan DeLeo may be reached via E-mail by .

 

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