BOSTON (SHNS) – Last year in Massachusetts, 119 people were killed in crashes involving a drunk driver, according to AAA Northeast. Crash survivors, families of the deceased, law enforcement officers and lawmakers now want the Legislature to advance bills they say will make Massachusetts roads safer.
The bill that attracted the most testimony before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday was one that has been kicked around on Beacon Hill for years, but never passed. The legislation would expand the use of ignition interlock devices for people convicted of drunken driving.
Filed by Rep. Louis Kafka, the bill (H 872) would give people convicted of drunk driving for the first time the choice to have an ignition interlock device — which tests a driver’s blood-alcohol level before starting the car — installed on their vehicle for six months rather than having their license suspended.
“This is a progressive bill in regards to alcohol-related issues. It’s an incentivize bill, it’s not a punishment bill. It’s going to help people who do get arrested for drunk driving, it’s going to give them the option of not driving on a suspended license,” Massachusetts State Police Sergeant John Kotfila said. “This is going to give these people who get arrested the ability to continue to drive, to go to work, to go to baseball games or sporting events, to take their kids to school. It will allow them to do all that while ensuring public safety because they will have an ignition interlock in their vehicle that they will have to blow into.”
Under current law, ignition interlocks are required in Massachusetts for operators driving under a hardship license after two or more drunken driving convictions. Kotfila said that in the last nine years ignition interlock devices in Massachusetts have prevented someone with a BAC over the legal limit from driving 38,000 times.
Kotfila’s son John Kotfila Jr., a deputy sheriff in Hillsborough County in Florida, died in March 2016 when he intentionally drove his cruiser head-first into a wrong way driver on an expressway in Tampa to stop the vehicle. The driver’s BAC, Kotfila said Tuesday, was 0.27, or more than three times the legal limit.
Linda Oliver Grape of Wellesley, whose son Matthew was killed by a drunk driver in 2011 while attending Duke University, told the committee that an ignition interlock law in North Carolina would have saved her son because the drunk driver, though only 22 years old, already had two drunk driving offenses. For Massachusetts to not have such a law, she said, is “socially irresponsible.”
“I feel that it is, with all due respect, categorically absurd that Massachusetts is the only state in New England that does not have this legislation in place,” she said.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving and AAA Northeast also testified on behalf of Kafka’s bill and its Senate counterpart, which was sent to the Transportation Committee and is awaiting a hearing. Both organizations said Massachusetts and Idaho are the only two states in the country without an ignition interlock law that deals with first-time offenders.
“Drunk driving is not an accident. It is a behavior and it is a risky behavior at that. Data shows that first offenders drive drunk an average of 80 times and sometimes upwards of 200 times before they are caught,” Sarah Carmichael, who survived a 2008 crash caused by a drunk driver, said. “The first offense is the opportunity to prevent dangerous drinking and driving, and reform behavior.”
Last session, the Senate passed a bill that would have replaced hardship licenses, which are sometimes granted to drunk driving offenders so they can travel to work or necessary appointments, with the option to apply for an ignition interlock device. That bill passed in the waning days of formal sessions and never emerged from the House Ways and Means Committee.
Frank Harris, director of state government affairs for MADD, said he thinks the ignition interlock bill could fit in with the criminal justice reform bill the Senate is preparing to take up.
A bill (S 2087) filed by Gov. Charlie Baker to address a court ruling he believes favors repeat drunk drivers got its hearing before the Judiciary Committee on Tuesday as well, a full four months after the governor said its “impact in potential saved lives cannot be measured.”
In a filing letter, Baker wrote that state laws “provide that a prosecutor may ask a judge to hold a defendant without bail, based on dangerousness, in a criminal case involving ‘a third or subsequent conviction for a violation of’ our laws punishing operating a motor vehicle under the influence.”
Until a Supreme Judicial Court ruling in June, the governor added, “many prosecutors and judges believed that this language authorized judges to detain dangerous people who have been twice convicted of OUI and face a third charge for the same conduct.”
But the SJC ruled that the law as written “is ambiguous such that the rule of lenity necessitates an interpretation requiring three, and not two, prior OUI convictions.” Baker’s bill would delete the words “conviction for a” from the law, allowing prosecutors to ask judges to hold defendants charged with drunken driving for a third time.
“We should resolve this ambiguity in favor of public safety, rather than in favor of recidivist drunk drivers,” Baker said in his filing letter.
Ben Goldberger, deputy legal counsel to Baker, testified on behalf of the governor’s bill for less than two minutes Tuesday and none of the eight Judiciary Committee members present had questions for Goldberger.