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RISKS HIGH, COURTS LAX WITH ILLEGAL DRIVERS
25,000 caught last year; effort being made to increase penalties~ The Patriot Ledger
Tens of thousands of people who have been stripped of their licenses for everything from drunken driving to racking up speeding tickets continue to drive, and many get off with a slap on the wrist, according to a Patriot Ledger review of available documents.
Some 25,518 citations were issued in 2004 to people caught driving on a suspended license, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. In 2002, police issued 30,551 citations for the offense.
Three accidents on the South Shore this week illustrate the dangers the scofflaws pose to law-abiding drivers and pedestrians.
"Any one of us, any day of the week or any time of the day or night, is subject to getting hit by one of these people," said Edward Melia, whose granddaughter and newborn great-granddaughter were hospitalized after Sunday's crash in Quincy. "That's what makes this so terrifying for a lot of people."
Numbers back up his fears.
Robert Scopatz, author of a AAA-funded report on the issue, said unlicensed drivers are four times more likely than properly licensed drivers to be involved in fatalities.
Despite those dangers, many people convicted of the crime aren't locked up.
A charge of first-offense driving with a suspended license can land someone in jail for up to 10 days, though hard time isn't required. For a second or subsequent offense, the jail time jumps to 60 days, then to a year.
If the suspension stemmed from a drunken driving offense, the punishment is harsher: 60 days to 2½ years.
Fines range from $500 to $10,000, and the Registry of Motor Vehicles automatically tacks additional time onto the existing suspension.
But many who thumb their nose at the law don't get the harshest penalty.
Of 4,058 defendants found guilty in the 2003-2004 fiscal year of a first-offense charge of driving on a license suspended for non-alcohol or non-drug offenses, only 14 percent served any jail time, according to data available from the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission. For a second or subsequent offense, 43 percent spent time behind bars.
Statistics on sentences for people convicted of driving on licenses suspended for alcohol- or-drug related crimes were not available.
A Patriot Ledger review of a sampling of recent district court cases found similar trends on the South Shore.
Several people had charges continued without a finding, meaning they likely will be dropped if the defendants stay out of trouble. Others received suspended sentences that don't have to be served if they behave. A few got jail time.
State Rep. Frank Hynes, D-Marshfield, said consequences have to be harsher to get people to stop.
"Clearly the penalties for folks in this situation are insufficient or you wouldn't have that volume," Hynes said.
"There ought to be a penalty that's tantamount to jail, either direct time in jail or a bracelet put on the individual and they be confined to their home," he said.
Some attempts are under way to address the issue.
"Melanie's Bill," named for 13-year-old Melanie Powell of Marshfield, who was killed by a repeat drunken driver, would increase to three months the mandatory minimum jail stay for anyone convicted of drunken driving who is later caught driving without a license.
Under another bill filed Friday, anyone who knowingly lends a car to someone with a suspended license could face up to 21/2 years in jail, have his own license yanked for 90 days or be hit with a fine up to $5,000.
Registrar of Motor Vehicles Kim Hinden said her agency needs the Legislature's help dealing with unlicensed drivers.
"It is the most frustrating issue that we grapple with," she said.
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at email@example.com.
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