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Drunken-driving bill in trouble
Legislators' support waivers on stiff penalties for repeat offenders in Melanie's Law
~ Patriot Ledger State House Bureau
BOSTON - Despite renewed calls to get tough on drunken drivers, a proposed law calling for stiffer penalties for repeat offenders is in trouble on Beacon Hill.
The co-chairman of a key House committee is questioning support for the bill known as Melanie's Law, named for a 13-year-old Marshfield girl killed by a drunken driver in 2003.
Sen. Robert Creedon, D-Brockton, judiciary committee co-chairman who handles criminal defense cases as a private attorney, has not agreed to support Melanie's Bill. Instead, Creedon and Sen. Michael Morrissey, D-Quincy, an insurance attorney, are pushing a much narrower proposal to increase penalties for anyone who knowingly lends a car to someone without a valid driver's license.
Melanie's Law would require a mandatory three-month sentence for anyone with a drunken-driving conviction who is later caught driving with a suspended license.
Creedon aide Thomas Brophy said Melanie's Law may be too ambitious to pass in the Legislature.
"There are some pieces that are going to work, there are some pieces that are going to have to be taken out," Brophy said. "Melanie's bill is a much larger bill with increased penalties and seizing property. Melanie's bill is going to take longer for the (judiciary) committee to review."
Morrissey said he might eventually support the bill. But he has objections to a provision that would allow courts to confiscate automobiles from drunken drivers, even if the vehicle is jointly owned.
"I support a good number of the provisions of the bill, but I want to see the final product," Morrissey said.
David DeIuliis, a spokesman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he doesn't expect anyone to openly oppose the bill. But he does suspect a stealth campaign to gut it.
"If anything I would think that it would be quiet resistance," he said. "I don't know that anyone is going to stand up front and center and advocate for drunken drivers."
Sen. Robert Hedlund, R-Weymouth, is making a personal appeal to his colleagues, asking them to support Melanie's Law. He has heard back from 32 of the 200 legislators.
In a letter to fellow legislators, Hedlund cited last month's Quincy crash in which a 24-year-old woman and her daughter - who was delivered by emergency Caesarian section following the accident - were injured when their car was struck, allegedly by a repeat drunken driver, Lawrence J. Robertson of Braintree. He also cited the case of Melanie Powell, the 13-year-old struck and killed by a drunken driver two summers ago. The woman convicted in that case, Pamela Murphy, was sentenced to 21/2 years in jail.
"These are just two examples of too many occasions where repeat OUI offenders have needlessly killed or injured innocent people," Hedlund wrote. "Melanie's bill will significantly increase the penalties for drunk driving and help keep repeat OUI offenders off the roads."
The bill is expected to be considered by the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary in September.
Rep. Daniel Webster, R-Hanson, a committee member, said he hopes the bill can be quickly passed to head off an Oct. 1 threat by federal highway officials that the state comply with federal mandates -or lose $9 million in federal highway funding.
"Massachusetts doesn't always get good ratings from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and other groups because we haven't been as proactive as some of the other states," Webster said.
A report by The Patriot Ledger in November 2003 highlighted weaknesses in state drunken-driving laws that allow repeat offenders to continue driving despite multiple convictions.
Tom Benner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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