VALLEY DISPATCH CONTRIBUTOR, On Oct. 19, after a final day of intense negotiations by members of the joint conference committee on a bill to tighten the penalties for those who drink and drive, the House voted 114-22 to support H. 4446. The compromise bill is just that — a compromise. Despite reports that the final bill is a weakened version of the so-called “Melanie’s Bill,” this is a tough bill that sends a clear message — if you drink, don’t get behind the wheel.

Under this bill, if you refuse a breathalyzer test at the time of arrest, your vehicle will be impounded for 12 hours. If this is your second offense and you refused to take a breathalyzer test, your license will be suspended for three years. The bill increases the license suspension for all first offender motor vehicle homicide convictions from 10 to 15 years. If you were previously convicted of motor vehicle homicide while under the influence and you are convicted of driving drunk again, you will lose your license for the rest of your life.

The bill also creates several new offenses. Under the law, if you are convicted of lending a vehicle to someone who you know is intoxicated, you will receive a minimum one-year sentence. The bill creates a new offense, that of operating a vehicle while intoxicated after suspension of your license for OUI (operating under the influence), which carries a mandatory one-year sentence. The bill allows for the cancellation of the registration of any vehicle owned by a third OUI offender and permits forfeiture proceedings for any vehicle owned by a four-time offender. The bill also includes a minimum 90-day sentence for anyone who is convicted of driving while intoxicated with someone 14 years or younger in the vehicle.

One of the most significant features of the bill in the effort to stop repeat drunken driving is the ignition interlock. If you are a repeat offender, you will have to have an ignition interlock device installed in your car. The device is designed to prevent the car from starting if the driver blows into the device and registers a blood alcohol level of .08 or more. The fight to include interlock devices began almost 20 years ago and we were able to keep this language in the bill.

The portion of the bill that has received the most publicity is the removal of the measure that would have made certified copies of court records of prior convictions admissible during the sentencing phase before the judge. Currently, there has to be witness corroboration of the first or subsequent offenses. The provision does pose some constitutional questions. I was concerned that a constitutional challenge after passage would result in the entire law being overturned by the Supreme Judicial Court, much like what happened with the original Sex Offender Registry language. I did not want to see that happen and was pleased to see the language separated from the bill to be sent to the SJC for a ruling.

It was not withdrawn from the bill, but rather returned to the conference committee, which can move that portion of the bill separately to the floor for consideration once the SJC rules on the constitutionality question. The measure would probably prevail since it received strong support and was included in the original House version.

The bill is not everything that the families of the victims and Mothers Against Drunk Driving had hoped for, but it is a vastly stronger position on repeat drunken drivers than we have ever had before in the Commonwealth. The Senate has concurred and the bill is now before Gov. Romney.

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