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Libertarian ideals smash face-first into drunks

by AP Thursday, May. 29, 2003 at 2:22 PM

Last year MADD ranked Massachusetts as one of the three worst states at fighting drunken driving and underage drinking, mainly because its laws do not mandate that blood alcohol levels above the legal limit are proof of intoxication.

Massachusetts Poised To Adopt Tougher Drunken Driving Laws - House To Debate Stricter Law Thursday
Associated Press, May 28, 2003

BOSTON -- Under the threat of losing federal funding, Massachusetts may be poised to end its distinction as the only state that does not consider a failed breathalyzer test to be automatic proof of impairment.

For the first time, the House will debate a stricter law on Thursday, following three years of seeing the bill repeatedly thwarted despite the state's near-failing grades for its drunken driving laws and widespread support from public safety officials. "It was an unseen pressure," said Sen. Stephen Brewer, D-Barre. "The bill just wouldn't advance. It's been a three-year struggle."

Many legislators and Statehouse observers blame the delay on a libertarian streak in the state Constitution - which provides strong protections against self-incrimination - and defense attorneys' strong presence in the Legislature. "They made the case that this law wasn't right for Massachusetts," said Rep. Reed Hillman, R-Sturbridge. "But over time we've been able to change that perception."

House Majority Leader Salvatore F. DiMasi, D-Boston, and Rep. Stephen Tobin, D-Quincy, the former chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, are both defense attorneys. Neither returned calls for comment on Tuesday.

This year, however, the influence of defense attorneys is being countered by financial concerns. If the Legislature fails to pass the so-called "per se" law by Oct. 1, the state will lose $5.4 million in federal highway funds in fiscal 2004. The penalty increases each year, totaling $55 million by 2007. The threatened penalty, combined with the state's dwindling revenues, has given the measure momentum for the first time.

"After years of inaction, it's moving almost too fast for us to comprehend," said Barbara Harrington, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "The money does really bring it into a high profile, which is helpful. It's a little difficult for people to walk away from."

MADD last year ranked Massachusetts as one of the three worst states in the country at fighting drunken driving and underage drinking. The state scored a "D-minus" on a national report card, mainly because it does not have a law mandating that any driver with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit be automatically considered drunk. Currently, that is just one piece of evidence that can be used in a court case.

"Defending drunk drivers is a fairly lucrative practice," Brewer said. "The law right now allows defense attorneys to work the angles." In addition to changing that portion of the law, the bill under consideration would also increase the penalty for refusing a breathalyzer test from a 120-day license suspension to 180 days, and decrease the penalty for those who fail the test from a 90-day suspension to 30 days.

Under current laws, there is no incentive to take the test when someone knows they may have had too much drink, advocates say. Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey appeared before the Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday to encourage passage of the legislation. "Sadly, we are the last state in the union to not embrace this life-saving legislation," she said. "Too many innocent people have left home for a carton of milk or to pick up a friend and never came home."

Gov. Mitt Romney sent a letter to House members asking for their support and also encouraging them to support a bill, up for debate in the House today, that would allow police officers to pull over drivers solely because they are not wearing seatbelts. Currently, it is not a justification for a traffic stop, unless children under age 12 are not wearing a belt.
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