Getting It Right: The BBA Seeks Reform of Drunk Driving Law

On Wednesday, September 25th, the Joint Committee on the Judiciary held a public hearing with 52 bills on the agenda.  The hearing had a serious and often somber feel.   A number of elected officials and 86 Massachusetts Police Chiefs testified.  Perhaps the most gripping testimony came from family members of young people injured or killed in drunk-driving accidents. 

The majority of oral testimony focused on a bill giving police officers authority to make stops in cities or towns bordering their own.  A handful of other bills proposed to raise the mandatory minimum sentences for drunk-driving offenders. 

The BBA co-sponsored S655, An Act to Protect the Citizens of the Commonwealth from Drunk Drivers, which provides straightforward clarifications to the current law.  In addition to our written testimony, Cape and Islands District Attorney Michael O’Keefe and a representative of the Massachusetts Bar Association both testified in favor of the bill.   O’Keefe offered especially persuasive testimony, quoting a recent Massachusetts Appeals Court decision that described the current state of handling cases under Massachusetts OUI laws as “akin to driving a car without windshield wipers on a dirt road on the side of a mountain at night during a blizzard.” 

Our bill is not new.  The BBA Council unanimously endorsed this bill in 2007, when it was first filed in the House of Representatives.  The bill has been re-filed every session since then.  It is easy to ignore a bill like S655.  It is not precipitated by any recent event and it generates little publicity, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t become law.  Furthermore, this bill does not offer any substantive changes to the law.  However, the current Massachusetts drunk driving laws are contained in Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 90, a mess of language that has been amended 69 times over the last 100 years in a piecemeal manner.  Its structure leaves judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys struggling to interpret how the statute should be applied to various cases.  Therefore, S655 provides a concise, clear, and much-needed restatement of the existing laws, breaking each portion down into understandable definitions and logical sections.  The BBA believes this bill will streamline the administration of justice, benefitting both interested parties and the general public alike. 

We at the BBA are proud to have fulfilled our mission, facilitating access to justice by providing legislative guidance on an issue on which we have credibility and expertise.  Now it’s in the legislature’s hands.  We hope they will heed our testimony and pass this law to improve the administration of justice in the Commonwealth.

- Jonathan Schreiber
Legislative and Public Policy Manager
Boston Bar Association
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