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.