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Melanie’s Bill foes lambaste feel-good politics
Backers hope Senate will restore its bite
Patriot Ledger State House Bureau
BOSTON - Melanie’s Bill came under a blistering assault in the House during a six-hour floor debate, with defense lawyer-legislators leading the charge to strip the proposed crackdown on repeat drunken drivers.
Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty, co-chairman of the committee that peeled away some of the most stringent provisions of the bill, said yesterday that parts of it were unconstitutional. He accused the bill’s supporters, including Republican Gov. Mitt Romney, of engaging in feel-good politics.
The Chelsea Democrat added that supporters of the bill - it’s named for 13-year-old Melanie Powell of Marshfield, who was killed by a repeat drunken driver in 2003 - are often too emotional and lack an understanding of legal nuance.
“This shouldn’t be a personal issue,” he told his fellow lawmakers. “You shouldn’t feel pressured by newspapers, by editorial boards or the glare of the camera when you’re making these difficult decisions.”
O’Flaherty was joined by three other defense lawyer-legislators, Rep. Stephen Tobin, D-Quincy, Rep. James Fagan, D-Taunton, and Rep. Michael Costello, D-Newburyport, in arguing for a substitute to Melanie’s Bill. -
Tobin backed a proposal - as expected, it was not adopted - to lower the legal definition of impairment from a .08 blood alcohol level to .02 level. No state has a legal definition below .08.
“Why are we playing games?” Tobin asked. “Why don’t we just draft and enact a bright line in our law that says if you want to drive in the commonwealth of Massachusetts, drink no alcohol?”
Some accused Tobin of throwing out a proposal he knew had no chance of being approved.
“It was thrown in there to give the House the opportunity to say, ‘See, we really are tough,’” said Ron Bersani of Marshfield, Melanie Powell’s grandfather, who watched the debate from the spectator’s gallery.
O’Flaherty defended the Legislature’s record on drunken driving, saying lawmakers have voted 19 times in the past decade for tougher sanctions.
But Rep. Daniel Webster, a Hanson Republican who supports Melanie’s Bill, said lawmakers still have a long way to go before congratulating themselves.
“If we have taken up drunk driving legislation 19 times in the past few years, why is it that we still receive a D-minus from Mothers Against Drunk Driving regarding our drunken driving laws on the books?” asked Webster, who is also a lawyer.
“Why is it we are ranked 48th of all the states in the nation in terms of level of toughness that our laws provide?”
Rep. Frank Hynes, a Marshfield Democrat who led the floor debate in favor of Melanie’s Bill, disagreed that support for the measure had been too emotional.
“Maybe on this large issue of drinking and driving, we really need to bring some emotion into this debate, we need to have the spotlight on us, we need to be reminded of the victims, their families, the consequences to them for the rest of their lives,” he said.
Supporters of Melanie’s Bill hope some of its original provisions will be restored in the Senate, which took up the bill today.
“We probably won’t have the whole complete Melanie’s Bill,” said Ed Melia of Quincy, who lost a great-granddaughter, allegedly to a repeat drunken driver, this past summer. “But I’m not discouraged. I’m well aware of the political process; no bill comes out exactly the same as it came in.”
The House did vote to restore several provisions of Melanie’s Bill that critics had sought to exclude, including:
Tom Benner may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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