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UPDATE:

8-2-05

A Patriot Ledger series: Summary | PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | UPDATES

Melanie's Story

A first-hand story from the grandfather of 13-year-old victim Melanie Powell
Memories of Melanie: A photo slideshow

STORIES

State ranked among the worst in nation
Quincy judge was among first to take a hard line

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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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.

Highlights of Melanie's Law

Establish mandatory jail time for repeat drunken drivers. Currently, repeat offenders often receive suspended sentences and probation.

Increase minimum penalties and community service for repeat offenders.

Mandatory three-month sentence for anyone convicted of drunken driving who is later caught driving with a suspended license.

Allow judges to impound and order the sale of vehicles owned by repeat offenders.

Mandate lifetime loss of license for a convicted drunken driver who has killed someone and is subsequently convicted of another drunken-driving offense.

Require repeat offenders to install ignition interlock devices on their vehicles; the devices would force them to pass a breath test before they could start their cars.

Create a new crime for driving drunk with a child under 17 in the car.

Create a new crime of aggravated drunken driving for anyone with a blood-alcohol level of 0.20, more than twice the 0.08 limit. (Similar laws are on the books in other states, including Maine.)

Increase license suspension from six months to a year for anyone who refuses to take a breath test or field-sobriety test. The penalty increases to three years on a second refusal; five years on a third refusal; and a lifetime suspension on a fourth refusal.

Lift the burden on prosecutors by allowing certified records of drunken-driving convictions to be sufficient evidence in proving prior convictions in court. Currently, prosecutors must produce a witness, such as an arresting officer, to be able to introduce past convictions in court.

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 tbenner@ledger.com.

 

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