If all goes as Senate and House leaders expect, the state will have tougher law against drunken drivers this summer.
The two chambers are both pursuing separate means to the same end, which is closing the so-called "loophole" in Melanie's Law, which was passed in 2005 to stiffen penalties for driving under the influence. It's named after 13-year-old Melanie Powell, who was killed by a repeat drunken driver as she crossed a street in Marshfield in 2003.
While the current law calls for an offender's license to be suspended for three years on a second offense, it does not count cases that are continued without a finding (CWOF) as an offense. In those cases, a defendant will admit to committing the crime but the charge against him or her will be dropped after a certain length of time provided no new crimes are committed.
This was the case for Paul Souza, who had a 1997 drunken-driving case continued without a finding but then refused a breathalyzer test in 2010 in Norton, which the Registry of Motor Vehicles viewed as a second offense. Souza took the Registry to court, arguing that the 1997 case should not have counted as an offense. On May 17, the Supreme Judicial Court agreed with him.
The ruling triggered an immediate reaction in both chambers of the Legislature. On May 19, the Senate filed an act to enhance Melanie's Law by considering CWOF cases as offenses. Within days, the Senate voted unanimously on the act, which was added as an amendment to the fiscal 2013 bill.
The same day the Senate took up the cause, the House filed a standalone bill to toughen Melanie's Law. Within 24 hours, 30 representatives had signed on to co-sponsor the bill, according to Alexis Tkachuk, Chairman Eugene O'Flaherty's chief of staff.
The Senate amendment is now in committee, being hammered out as part of the bigger fiscal bill, and House leadership is hopeful that their measure, which Attorney General Martha Coakley supports, will come up for a vote soon.
"I'm quite confident it will be resolved by the end of [the legislative session in] July," Tkachuk said, adding that the measure has broad bi-partisan support.