Governor Mitt Romney today filed legislation he dubbed “Melanie’s Bill,” a tough new proposal that cracks down on repeat drunk driving offenders. Romney said the legislation is necessary to preserve federal funding and protect the lives and safety of Massachusetts citizens.
The bill increases penalties for drunk driving related offenses, particularly with regard to individuals who repeatedly drink and drive.
Romney was joined by Tod and Nancy Powell, the parents of Melanie Powell, 13, of Marshfield, who was struck and killed by a repeat drunk driver while walking to the beach with her friends in 2003.
“Two years ago, Melanie Powell went out for a walk with her friends and never came back. Her life was taken by a repeat drunk driver. We can’t bring Melanie back, but we can do everything in our power to prevent this kind of tragedy from occurring again,” said Romney.
“The Powell family has suffered the worst loss imaginable. Sadly, they know first-hand that drunk driving laws in the Commonwealth allow offenders to get behind the wheel over and over, sometimes with limited consequences. We want to ensure that when their reckless behavior takes an innocent life, they can never legally drive again,” said Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey.
“Melanie’s Bill” increases penalties for a range of drunk driving offenses and gives prosecutors the power to go after repeat drunk drivers with heavier crimes and penalties.
Under Romney’s proposal, new crimes with stiff penalties are established for repeat offenders, individuals who drive while drunk with a child under the age of 16 in the vehicle and those who drive with a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of .20 or higher, more than twice the legal limit.
The legislation also creates the crime of manslaughter by motor vehicle and requires a driver convicted of this offense to suffer the permanent loss of his or her driver’s license. Currently, drunk drivers who kill in Massachusetts do not automatically lose their licenses for life. The proposed law will also raise the minimum sentence for such a conviction from the current maximum, which is two and half years, to a minimum sentence of five years.
“It's time for Massachusetts to devote less emphasis and resources to the rights of the accused and more on the rights of the victim,” said Ron Bersani, Melanie’s grandfather. “The passage of this legislation will be an enduring legacy to a little girl whose dream job was to grow up and become a guardian angel so she could always be there to protect her family and others from harm.”
“Melanie’s Bill” also contains tougher license suspension provisions, including:
- increasing license suspension for refusing to submit a breathalyzer or field sobriety tests from 180 days to a mandatory one year for a first offense, and up to a lifetime suspension for subsequent offenses;
- eliminating the 15-day grace period between failure to take a breathalyzer and the start of a license suspension. The provision also requires the arresting officer to confiscate an offender’s license on-the-spot without issuing a 15-day permit as is the practice under current law.
To target the drunk drivers who continue to drive despite an OUI suspension, Romney’s proposal will establish jail time for motorists who operate with a suspended license, and mandatory jail time for those who drive drunk while under a license suspension from a prior OUI.
The bill also has a provision that will lift an unreasonable burden on our prosecutors, who currently have to prove prior OUI convictions after each new offense. This allows certified records to serve as self-authenticating proof making them automatically admissible in any courtroom of the Commonwealth.
The legislation conforms the laws of the Commonwealth with federal requirements that Massachusetts must adopt in order to preserve federal funding intended for important highway projects. If Massachusetts does not meet the federal mandates by October 2005, the state will have to transfer approximately $9 million from the Highway Department to the Governor’s Highway Safety Bureau.
Last year, Governor Romney filed similar legislation, and it was passed by both the House and the Senate. However, it failed to get a final enactment vote before time ran out on the legislative session.
Aggressive efforts to crack down on drunk driving by state and local police and the tough per se law signed by Governor Romney in 2003 are making roads in Massachusetts safer, but there is still more work to do. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, alcohol-related deaths have declined 17 percent in Massachusetts between 2002 and 2003. However, statistics show that residents are still more likely to die in an alcohol-related accident than by a homicidal crime. In 2003, 142 people were killed by homicide, compared to 207 alcohol-related highway fatalities.