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May 21, 2012

Tarr, allies target Melanie's Law loophole

Less than a week after a state Supreme Judicial Court ruling struck down what lawmakers say was a key provision of the so-called Melanie's Law targeting drunken drivers, state Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, and his colleagues are trying to move quickly to close a perceived loophole in the legislation.

Tarr, Senate Minority Whip Richard J. Ross, R-Wrentham, and Sen. Michael R. Knapik, R-Westfield — the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee — have filed an amendment to the state's fiscal 2013 budget proposal that would ensure that cases involving a continuation without a finding but where sufficient facts are admitted for a conviction are treated as a conviction for the purpose of establishing a repeat offender status.

In a decision issued by the high court last week, Justice Margot Botsford and her colleagues reversed the license suspension of Paul J. Souza by the Registry of Motor Vehicles based on a drunken driving case in 2010 in the south0central Massachusetts town of Norton, where he refused to take a chemical breath test.

Souza had previously refused a Breathalyzer test in a 1997 case which was continued without a finding after Souza had admitted to sufficient facts for a finding of guilty.

Under Melanie's Law, which draws its name from 13-year-old Melanie Powell of Marshfield, who was struck and killed by a repeat drunk driver as she crossed a street in 2003, Souza's second refusal would normally trigger a license suspension of three years, and the Registry took that action. Through last week's decision, the Supreme Judicial Court countermanded that decision because of the continuation of his first case.

In the court's decision, Botsford wrote, "Even if we were to consider the purpose of Melanie's Law, we are not at liberty to construe the statute in a manner that might advance its purpose but contravenes the actual language chosen by the Legislature."

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