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Vox populi

Yesterday, a miracle happened in Massachusetts. Governor Mitt Romney signed a new drunk-driving bill into law, toughening the penalties and removing some of the roadblocks that had been in place to prevent repeat drunken drivers from being penalized as severely as they ought.

The story starts when 13-year-old Melanie Powell was killed in 2003 by a drunk driver with a lengthy history of convictions. Her death was a catalyst for her grandfather, Ron Bersani, who started a crusade to change the laws, keep drunk drivers like the woman who killed Melanie off the road, and punish them more severely.

A couple of the provisions of Melanie's Bill addressed some oddities in the law that had greatly benefited the accused. For one, prior convictions for drunk driving were inadmissible the original arresting officer or other eyewitness personally testified. Now, a simple certified record of the conviction will suffice -- much like any other conviction. They also upped the penalty for refusing a breathalyzer or blood test. Then it created new crimes, covering driving under the influence with a child under 14 in the car; knowingly loaning a car to someone who is drunk; and manslaughter by drunken driving. The breathalyzer measures weren't as tough as they were originally, but it is an improvement.

But that's routine stuff, the kind of thing that happens all the time in every state. After a few high-profile deaths from drunk-driving crashes, there's always a push to toughen the laws. And Massachusetts' laws were notably lax, especially in contrast with other states. What was so miraculous about this one?

It was the way it was done, and how it exposed the behind-the-scenes politics that often take place on Beacon Hill.

Melanie's Bill was originally passed in differing forms by the Massachusetts House and Senate. Whenever that happens, the bill is sent to a Conference Committee that merges the two into a form acceptable to both Houses, and then sends it back to get re-passed. This time, however, several of the Conferees were also lawyers who garnered a good chunk of their income from defending accused drunk drivers. They gutted Melanie's Bill so thoroughly that her grandfather came out swinging against it, denouncing it a "betrayal" of her memory and calling for her name to be taken off the bill and it be defeated. Then, after the House approved the castrated version 116-22, several key members of the House (including the Speaker) took off on a vacation to Spain and Portugal, leaving their colleagues to deal with the mess and finish up the rest of the House's business this session.

The media was all over this story, and Ron Versani was on every radio station and TV he could reach. Governor Romney vowed to veto the bill in its present form, and repeatedly and publicly railled against the legislative leadership. The fight became a huge public crusade when yet another drunk driver killed another innocent pedestrian, while the Boston newspapers showed pictures of the absent leadership wining and dining abroad. The heat got so bad that the Speaker cut short his trip and hopped on a plane back home. He returned to the House, gave a very rare floor speech and apologized for the heat they were getting, and went to work.

The House took another look at Melanie's Bill, and decided that nearly all the parts they'd carefully yanked out weren't so bad, after all. As a sop to their pride, they watered down the breathalyzer-refusal penalties, but in the end they voted 138-2 to put back the very items that 114 of them had voted to remove 10 days ago. And Friday afternoon, Governor Mitt Romney signed Melanie's Law.

In 10 days, 114 members of the Massachusetts House all changed their mind and flipped their position 180 degrees. And it was all because one grandfather wouldn't let the memory of his granddaughter, killed by a repeat drunk driver, be attached to a cynical sop to drunk drivers and those who profit by their crimes.

Comments (10)

It says a lot about Massach... (Below threshold)

It says a lot about Massachusetts, I think, that you have to embarass the legislature into doing the right thing.

So now lawyers who defend t... (Below threshold)

So now lawyers who defend their clients are attacked as "those who profit by their crime"?
That is an interesting take. It certainly is a challenge to those stupid Americans who prefer a justice system that does not simply hand over charged citizens to the prison warden for punishment. Someone skipped a few civics lessons in school.

I'm glad they made it tough... (Below threshold)

I'm glad they made it tougher, but I won't be happy until there is a death penalty for drunk driving and killing someone.

I has my back broken and my milltary flying career ended when a 4 time convicted drunk driver hit my car. I was lucky in that the sob burned to death in his car. I hope it was slow and painful. Even after 12 years I still have the pain.

My best friend from the time I was 7 was killed by a 3 time winner of the DUI award. His wife is paralized now and is struggling to raise their two kids alone. I was saved from a probable jail sentence there as well as that driver died too. Saved me from hunting him down. So, my opinion may be a bit tainted but the huge impact on my life those sacks of shit left me with.

They may be addicted to alcohol and have little choice in whether they drink. No one is addicted to driving. That's a choice. Choosing to drive while drunk is something I put in the same category as someone choosing to fire off a few rounds from an assault rifle in a crowd.

mikem, it's very simple: th... (Below threshold)
Jay Tea:

mikem, it's very simple: the lawmakers who helped gut the first draft of the bill have a very real financial stake in keeping the drunk-driving laws as convoluted and lax as possible. I believe that one of them even specializes in DUI cases. Toss in the fact that these same lawmakers also rule on things like judge's pay, and you have a rather interesting situation:

Imagine you were arrested for DUI. How would you like as your attorney a guy who not only helped write the DUI law, but has a say in whether the judge gets a raise next year?

Massachusetts has a "professional" legislature. Base pay is around 55K/year, with travel, expenses, and other bonuses for committee membership and the like. They justified that by saying it was so they could get lawmakers who could focus on that, instead of having to juggle their elective duties and a career. But for some, that isn't enough. They want a second career, and somehow often manage to find one where there is a bit of synergy between the two as far as earning potential goes.

Here in New Hampshire, we take a different approach. We pay 'em $100/year. That's one hundred dollars. Per year. They can't AFFORD to hang around Concord and make new laws and cause problems. And them that do, end up getting voted out of office next election.


I guess Massachusetts' best... (Below threshold)

I guess Massachusetts' best known perpetrator of drunken vehicular manslaughter (And senior senator) had better stick to being chauffered around Hyanis now...

They should have named the ... (Below threshold)

They should have named the law after Mary Jo Kopechene. After al, she was a victim of a drunken driver. The esteemed senior Senator from the Bay State.

By rights this man should be doing life for that crime, instead of being a pain in ass Senator.

Only a Republican would pas... (Below threshold)

Only a Republican would pass a law that would have such a hugh impact on The Kennedy Family in Massachusetts. This law's passage indicates that the Kennedy Family's political power is in steep decline.

I share in Faith+1's sugges... (Below threshold)

I share in Faith+1's suggestion that driving while intoxicated is similar, equal to picking up a loaded rifle and shooting into a crowd: both represent the willful use of a loaded weapon without regard for fatalities resulting, and without restraint as to where the weapon is directed and upon whom.

There ARE laws that punish some DUIers as that (charging them with murder and convicting some of same) but our society is still far too cozy with what some think is "funny" about being drunk.

Being drunk is one thing. Sometimes, yes, funny -- go read many of the free webblog and forum sites that are frequented by often younger and more intense alcoholics -- but opting to drive a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol is another. Unfortunately, that is often if not consistently countered as someone "not being cognizant of their actions or having lost the ability to make rational choices" == the temporary insanity defense.

Problem then becomes as to those having suffered "temporary insanity" again going temporarily insane again, and again, and...

Serial DUIers get harsher penalties but it seems unfortunatley it's only after they commit multiple murders using cars as their weapon of choice. Prohibition didn't work, but there should be some workable median there as to the thrill of alcohol, or that it's perceived as such (thrilling). I watched "Sideways" again the other day and there they are, two comedic actors, in a comedy, drinking a full bottle of champaigne while driving a car on the freeway. It isn't funny, truly it isn't, and yet that film about, mostly, alcoholic "fun" and two alcoholics having their "fun," is a popular image as to what it means to drink and drive.

Faith+1:I'm not su... (Below threshold)


I'm not sure that I would go quite so far as the death penalty. In some ways, death is too easy. My proposal has ben this:

If you kill or seriously injure someone, in addition to any civil penalties, you NEVER drive again.

If you drive again and commit a second offense, you never ride in a motor vehicle again, except on the way to a life term, without parole, at hard labor in solitary confinement.

Diane - the threat of civil... (Below threshold)

Diane - the threat of civil penalties will never discourage potential DUI criminals from doing their grisly duty. Short of removing arms and legs once convicted of DUI, there is no other way to guarantee that someone will "NEVER drive again."

I think perhaps the thrust of Faith+1's argument is going to the fact that, at its core, DUI is a premeditated act.

You don't wake up in the morning drunk (unless you are a Kennedy). Drinking is a deliberative act. Getting behind the wheel is a positive act. Anyone who kills people while DUI has done so while doing two deliberate acts - drinking and driving. That confers intent, and that makes a person eligible for the needle.

The only wiggle room I would like to see is a first-time exception (for those without any alcohol-related offenses) with mandatory jail time of 20 years, but anyone with a DUI conviction or accident on their record who kills someone while DUI should go straight to San Quentin for the needle.






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