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ROADS TO SAFETY
Two years later, more needs to be done to build on success of Melanie's Law
By RON BERSANI
October 28th will mark the second anniversary of the passage of “Melanie's Law,” the tough antidrunken-driving law named for my granddaughter Melanie Powell, killed while crossing the street in Marshfield on July 25, 2003. She was 13 years old. In two years, a lot has happened.
Recent statistics from both the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration paint a picture that has been described as “a fantastic trend” by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and editorials in several newspapers. And it is a fantastic trend.
Forty-six fewer people have lost their lives to drunken-driving crashes in Massachusetts in the past two years. The number of arrests of suspected drunken drivers with four or more OUI convictions dropped by 29 percent in the past year. Refusals to take a breath test are down significantly. With better tools, stepped-up police vigilance has resulted in increased arrests of drunken drivers and given prosecutors a much better chance to prove their case.
The Registry reports that more than 2,000 ignition interlock devices have been installed on the vehicles of repeat offenders with hardship licenses. These devices will not permit operation of a car if the driver has been drinking. I believe that these devices should be installed on the vehicles of first-time offenders, not just repeat offenders. This would send a clear, strong message that drunken driving will not be tolerated in Massachusetts.
But the picture isn’t all rosy. Because I am so closely associated with the passage of the law, I receive a lot of calls, letters and e-mails. Some are from families going through the agony of a lost loved one and asking for help with the healing process or the judicial system. Those are the heart-breaking ones. Some are simply a ‘thank you’ for working so hard on the process. Some are for advice on another piece of legislation. And some are angry, frustrated appeals to “please do something” to carry the message even further.
The tone of most of the complaints is generally the same - how can so many multiple offenders continue to drive? Why do we still see plea bargaining allowing four or five-time offenders to get a reduced sentence? How can someone be arrested on a fourth or fifth offense as has happened recently in at least two cases in area courts and be granted bail as low as $290? After that many offenses, shouldn’t they be held at least until they go before a judge?
Let’s face it - there are huge discrepancies in the way judges treat drunken-driving cases. A recent case in Marshfield is the poster child for lenient treatment of a habitual offender.
In February, Robert Ohnemus Sr. was arrested in Marshfield and charged with seventh-offense drunken driving. He was arrested after he allegedly led police on a seven-mile chase through downtown Marshfield nearly hitting two officers. He was also arraigned on two counts of resisting arrest, two counts of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, possession of an open container of alcohol and several motor vehicle violations including operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license.
At a dangerousness hearing in Plymouth District Court, Judge Thomas Brownell ruled that Mr. Ohnemus was not a danger to the community and released him on $1,000 bail. Mr. Ohnemus fled to Florida. He was tracked down and arrested in late September.
Melanie’s Law is a tough law, and the results from it are undeniable. But we need to do more.
These are some of the things I think we need to do to toughen the laws further and save more lives:
We need to make it abundantly clear to our legislators, Gov. Deval Patrick, State and local police, district attorneys and, most importantly, judges that drunken driving is intolerable.
Those of us who have lost so much, suffered so greatly and worked so hard to change the culture that leads to such a reckless, selfish and senseless act are begging you to please get involved.
Ron Bersani lives in Marshfield.
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