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Why can’t we keep drunks off our roads?
Despite Melanie’s Law, many get licenses back quickly
By KAREN ESCHBACHER
A Patriot Ledger investigation found that:
“The numbers are shocking and people should be disgusted,” said Barbara Harrington, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
In each of the cases, the drivers are recipients of so-called hardship licenses, granted to people who convince officials that their drinking and driving days are behind them and that the suspensions are crippling their livelihoods.
Most of the time, the licenses are good 12 hours a day to drive to work or school.
The long-standing practice of doling out hardships has continued despite the signing last fall of Melanie’s Law, drunken driving regulations named for a 13-year-old Marshfield girl. That’s because the law, while including new safeguards such as in-car breath tests for repeat offenders, still cuts drunken drivers some slack.
Massachusetts gives drunken drivers two avenues for pleading hardship.
The most common route is to go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles, where a hearing officer will consider the request if the driver has served enough “hard time” on the suspension and meets other criteria.
Registry officials said they granted 588 hardships in the first two months of this year, though the number includes those issued to traffic scofflaws. A breakdown of how many went to drunken drivers was not available. The figure also counts hardships approved by the Board of Appeal, since the Registry must actually issue the license.
Drivers who are denied a hardship from the Registry, or who aren’t eligible under the agency’s rules, can take their case to the Board of Appeal.
The three-member board, which includes one appointee each from the Registry, the Division of Insurance and the attorney general’s office, is given broad power under state law to modify or overturn suspensions, including those issued for drunken driving.
While Registry hearings are closed to the public, the Board of Appeal is subject to the state’s open meeting law, and documents filed with the panel are considered public records available for inspection.
The Ledger’s review of the 41 hardships licenses approved by the board earlier this year offers a glimpse into how the system operates and who benefits.
‘It’s a struggle’
Hilario Fernandes Jr. is a six-time drunken driver from Plymouth whose most recent offense scored him a 10-year license suspension.
On Jan. 26, roughly one year and 11 months before that suspension expired, the Board of Appeal agreed to let Fernandes drive during daylight hours.
Fernandes, 46, said in a telephone interview that he sought the return of driving privileges because he is a painter and had to lug around ladders when walking to job sites.
“It’s a struggle without a license,” said Fernandes, who still can’t drive because he hasn’t cobbled together the cash to pay reinstatement fees and other expenses. “I know I screwed up in my younger years. I never killed anybody. I never even crashed. I’m trying as hard as I can to put my life back together.”
Then there’s James Meeks of Brockton.
Meeks, 45, has three drunken driving offenses to his name. The last time he was pulled over, in 1999 in Randolph, he didn’t even have a valid license. In fact, Meeks has been busted nine times for driving on a suspended or revoked license, records show.
Still, the Board of Appeal agreed to give Meeks a hardship license two years and 11 months before his suspension was scheduled to end.
Meeks declined comment when reached by a reporter, except to say he needs a license for work.
Board members said they take seriously their ability to restore driving rights, and carefully consider both public safety and the hardships faced by people who have been stripped of their licenses.
On a recent day at a Registry branch office in Boston, members asked applicants questions about the last time they had a drink, how much and what sort of alcohol counseling they received. They inquired about what hours people work and where, whether they have children to support and how they’ve been getting by without a license.
In each case, the board also reviews the applicant’s driving history, criminal record, probation file and other pertinent documents.
In the Fernandes case, for example, the board considered the fact that his last offense was nearly 12 years ago, and that there was no evidence of driving on a suspended license, said Jeanne Koehr, the attorney general’s representative on the board.
In other instances, the board considers appeals from drivers who are prevented by technicalities from applying to the Registry for relief.
“We’re not callous in making these decisions,” Chairman Roger Babb said. “We’re very careful. We ask good hard questions and we seek documentation for support. It’s in that context, that’s what the Legislature wants us to do. None of us are going out of our way to support people who are drinking and driving.”
Board members said they also feel more confident now that Melanie’s Law requires repeat drunken drivers granted hardships to install an in-car sobriety test in any car they operate. The device, called an ignition interlock, prevents a car from starting if the driver has been drinking.
If concerns about public safety have been adequately addressed, helping someone get to work and earn a living isn’t a bad thing, Babb said.
“We’re now turning these people into productive taxpayers,” he said. “We’re keeping the family unit from unraveling. ... There is a whole downward spiral that takes place when people can’t get to work.”
Said Koehr: “We bring the compassionate, human hand to the law.”
‘A fine line’
The question of whether to grant hardships and to whom is not new in Massachusetts and was raised just last year when lawmakers debated Melanie’s Law.
While allowing the licenses to remain, the Legislature did instill some new checks. In addition to requiring ignition interlock devices, Melanie’s Law makes some drunken drivers wait longer to apply and prohibits hardships during suspensions triggered by a chemical test refusal.
“It’s a fine line,” said Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth. “We want to keep habitual offenders off the road and you have to have sanctions, but we still wanted to maintain some leeway. That was a tough call.”
To Rep. Frank Hynes, D-Marshfield, Melanie’s Law doesn’t go far enough on the issue. He said people who have driven drunk time and time again should serve their punishment, regardless of the hardship it causes.
“The focus here really has to be the safety of the general motoring public, not the interest, however valid or worthwhile there may be of an individual,” Hynes said.
Marshfield resident Ron Bersani agrees. He was the driving force behind Melanie’s Law, which is named for his granddaughter, Melanie Powell, who was run down by a drunken driver in 2003 as she walked from the beach with friends.
“When you’ve seen the ultimate terrible tragedy that can result from it, you have a little bit different outlook,” Bersani said.
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at keschbacher@ ledger.com.
82 drunken drivers get car breath test
By KAREN ESCHBACHER
Eighty-two drivers had on-board breath tests installed in their cars in the first two months of the year as part of the state’s tough new drunken-driving laws, and officials expect that number to grow significantly.
The ignition interlock device prevents a car from starting if the percentage of alcohol in a driver’s blood is higher than 0.02 percent – one fourth the legal limit of 0.08 percent.
Under Melanie’s Law, named after a 13-year-old Marshfield girl killed by a drunken driver, the devices are required of repeat drunken drivers whose licenses were reinstated as of Jan. 1 and repeat offenders granted hardship licenses allowing them to drive to work before their suspensions are up.
The requirement took effect at the beginning of the year.
The ignition lock requirement has prompted the first challenge to the law. A twice-convicted drunken driver from North Attleboro is fighting a requirement that he install a device because his case was decided before the law took effect.
Registry of Motor Vehicles officials said in December that nearly 800 people could be required to install the devices in January and February, based on the number of drivers whose suspensions were ending or who were eligible to apply for hardship licenses.
Registrar Anne Collins said last week that was the maximum number of people eligible to have the devices installed and Registry officials never expected to approach that number.
A variety of reasons account for the actual number installed being smaller, she said.
“(Drivers) are either not seeking reinstatement or they’re not seeking hardships,” Collins said. “In some cases, they may no longer be in the state. They may have moved. It’s hard to speculate.”
Logistics may also play a part.
Anyone required to have an ignition interlock installed must attend a Registry hearing and fill out paperwork, a process that takes time.
“There’s steps to it,” Collins said. “In some cases, people are going to be taking time off work. Some of the people have to get their insurance reinstated. Two months is really not a very long time.”
Also, when the program was launched in January, only one company was authorized to install the devices. That meant drivers from some towns had to travel considerable distances for installation and monthly maintenance appointments.
Two other companies have since been approved to install the on-board breath tests. And at least one of them – Dräger Safety Diagnostics – is expanding to several new locations, including a Randolph shop scheduled to open this week.
Such changes, and the fact every person whose suspension has ended will have to install the devices to get their licenses restored from now on, will help the program grow, Collins said.
“It’s an important public safety program, and we’re going to continue to work to make it better and more customer-focused and more apt to protect the public,” she said.
The number installed is still relatively small, but ignition interlocks are already preventing people from driving drunk.
The Registry took disciplinary action five times in February because of violations.
And in two instances in January and February, ignition interlocks have gone into “lockout” mode, meaning a driver either tried to start the car after drinking or missed a required retest while driving twice in a 30-day period.
Once in lockout, a driver has 48 hours to return to the vendor, who uploads the data to the Registry and resets the device. If the device goes into lockout two times, the Registry can suspend the driver’s license for 10 years.
Ron Bersani of Marshfield, the grandfather of Melanie Powell, whose death inspired Melanie’s Law, said he hopes ignition interlocks will be a powerful tool in the fight against drunken driving.
“Hopefully, it’s going to be one more thing for somebody to think about before they get behind the wheel of a car and drive drunk,” he said.
Karen Eschbacher may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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