Loophole benefits drunk drivers
Legislators, AG want to alter Melanie’s Law
Attorney General Martha Coakley and members of the Legislature are seeking to close a loophole in a drunken-driving law that allows some drivers who are prosecuted for drunken driving to avoid some of the sanctions the law was written to impose.
The loophole was brought to light when the Supreme Judicial Court ruled on Thursday that drivers who acknowledge that they were drunk behind the wheel but whose cases are continued without a finding are not subject to the stiffest civil penalties allowed by the law.
“Repeat drunk drivers pose a serious threat to public safety,’’ according to a statement from Coakley, who is working with state Senator Katherine Clark and state Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty on the issue. “We must respond quickly to close this loophole and ensure that repeat drunk drivers are taken off the roads for significant periods of time.’’
Melanie’s Law was passed in 2005 after a 13-year-old girl named Melanie Powell was hit and killed by a repeat drunk driver as she was walking across the street. The law was intended to keep repeat offenders off the street.
Under the law, a driver with no previous convictions for drunken driving can receive an 18-month license suspension. The length of suspension increases with the number of convictions on a driver’s record. A driver with three or more previous convictions can receive a lifetime suspension.
But the SJC’s decision Thursday ruled that the law governing license suspension for repeat drunk drivers narrowly defines what counts as a “conviction.’’
In some drunken driving cases, a judge will allow a defendant to admit that there is enough evidence to convict him or her, but then continue the case without a finding. . . . This happens when a judge, sometimes with the support of state prosecutors and defense lawyers, decides that the person is not likely to repeat the offense.
First offenders, Clark said, are entitled under state law to have their cases continued without a finding if they enter substance-abuse treatment programs.
The loophole could affect thousands of cases a year, said Clark. Between 2008 and 2011, she said, 33,000 cases statewide were continued without a finding, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
According to the ruling, these cases do not count as convictions under the current civil law. That means that the Registry of Motor Vehicles can not use them as a basis for increasing the civil penalty for repeat drunken driving, such as the length of license suspension.
Melanie’s grandfather, Ron Bersani, who pushed for Melanie’s Law, said in an interview that he was thrilled to hear that the attorney general and state Legislature were working to close the loophole.
“I think it’s very important to defend the concept that when you are [continued without a finding], you are basically admitting that you are guilty,’’ he said. “What we need to do is change the language to reflect that, and that is very important.’’
Coakley, Clark, and O’Flaherty, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, want to broaden the law’s definition of a “conviction’’ to include admitted drunk drivers whose cases are continued without a finding.
The definition would also be expanded to include instances where a driver was ordered to undergo treatment for alcohol or substance abuse as a result of a drunken driving prosecution.
On Friday, Clark filed an amendment to address the ruling and close the loophole. That matter is scheduled for vote on Wednesday.
“The RMV was not allowed to suspend a license until there was a criminal conviction,’’ said Clark. “It was an oversight, I believe, when the statute was first written.’’
O’Flaherty has announced that he will seek to address the loophole in the House, as well. To change the law, according to the attorney general’s office, both the Senate and House would have to vote to approve the amendment, and the governor would have to sign off.
“The SJC has identified a significant inability in the current law to effectively prosecute repeat drunk drivers,’’ said O’Flaherty in a statement. “I will work with the attorney general and my colleagues in the Legislature to swiftly address this public safety issue.’’
Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.