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Melanie’s Law making a difference
But some say penalties should be harsher for first-time drunken drivers
At least 1,657 people stopped for drunken driving in the past two months are subject to the tougher penalties of Melanie’s Law, a sweeping set of regulations inspired by the death of a Marshfield girl.
Of those, 713 had at least one prior drunken-driving conviction.
While it is still too early to tell what the lasting effects of the legislation will be, the new statistics from the Registry of Motor Vehicles suggest the law - named for 13-year-old Melanie Powell of Marshfield - is already making a difference.
Advocates say they hope the biggest changes are yet to come.
“I don’t expect drunk driving has dropped 20 percent since Melanie’s Law passed,” said Ron Bersani, Melanie’s grandfather and the most vocal champion of the legislation. “It’s going to take time. This is not something we’re going to eradicate in a week or a month.”
Among the local cases affected by Melanie’s Law:
Another major change prompted by the law is set to take effect in the coming weeks, when many repeat offenders will have to equip their cars with a breath test device that prevents the vehicle from starting if the driver has had too much to drink.
Repeat offenders will have to pay private vendors to install the so-called ignition interlocking devices, and results of the tests will periodically be sent to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
Forty-three other states already require the systems.
For all Melanie’s Law has accomplished, however, even its staunchest supporters acknowledge that there are still areas where the legislation falls short.
The law mostly addresses repeat drunken drivers and does little to deal with first-time offenders.
The original law proposed by Gov. Mitt Romney would have increased the automatic license suspension from 180 days to one year when a first-time offender refuses to submit to a breath test, but that measure didn’t make it into the final version.
And while alcohol assessment is now required of repeat drunken drivers, that provision doesn’t extend to most people who are arrested for the first time. (Only first-time offenders whose blood-alcohol level registers .20 or higher on the breath test - more than double the legal limit - must undergo an assessment.)
“When a person is first arrested, charged with drunken driving, we have to do a better job at getting that person’s attention,” said state Rep. Frank Hynes, D-Marshfield, who fought for the law.
“We’ve done through Melanie’s Law a good effort of getting tough on repeat offenders, but the first occurrence that drunk driving takes place, we’ve got to get better at assessing the person who is drunk, getting their attention and making them - through both the carrot and the stick approach - making them understand that what they did is wrong.”
Bersani, too, sees room for improvement.
Most of his complaints center around the Breathalyzer regulations.
Of the 1,657 drivers stopped for drunken driving from Oct. 28 to Dec. 15, 779 refused the breath test, according to the Registry. Of those, 354 had at least one prior conviction.
While Melanie’s Law increases the license suspension for repeat offenders who refuse the test, they can appeal to a judge to get their license back if acquitted. Bersani said the suspension should be permanent, regardless of the court outcome.
And he wants refusal to take the test to be admissible in court. Under the current system, jurors cannot be told about a refusal, giving drunken drivers incentive to decline and leaving prosecutors little evidence to work with.
“It’s still extremely difficult to prove drunk driving in Massachusetts,” Bersani said.
It seems unlikely such changes will be made anytime soon.
For starters, debate about Melanie’s Law was so controversial - and downright mean at times - legislators are likely to veer away from new drunken driving legislation in the immediate future.
And since the law was so sweeping, others may be inclined to see how it pans out before proposing changes.
“Because Melanie’s Law is a huge leap forward for Massachusetts and creates for repeat drunk drivers one of the toughest drunk driving laws in the country, and because it was so hotly contested and very difficult to achieve ... you won’t see a drunk driving bill of any scope that broadens Melanie’s Law, certainly next year,” Hynes said.
Karen Eschbacher may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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