Sunday July 1, 2012

BOSTON -- The state Legislature has approved a change in the state's drunken driving laws as a means to close a loophole for repeat offenders.

Under existing law, first-time offenders who admit to sufficient facts but whose cases are resolved with a continuance without a finding, or CWOF, are not subject to repeat offender status if they are charged with subsequent drunken driving offenses.

The change would allow CWOFs to be treated as convictions in future cases. A past record of drunken driving convictions plays a role in the length of a license suspension.

The measure was included in the 2013 budget approved by the state Senate and House of Representatives this past week. It now awaits the signature of Gov. Deval Patrick.

"This important change will make our roads safer and increase accountability for drunk drivers," said state Attorney General Martha Coakley in a statement.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said it's simply common sense to consider the individuals as repeat offenders.

The bill was not connected to the fatal multi-car crash that happened in Sheffield in February, which resulted in Frederick Weller of Sandy Hook, Conn., being charged with his seventh OUI as well as motor vehicle homicide. But Downing said he and state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli have talked about the tragedy, and it's on their mind every time a vote like this comes up.


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"We want to make sure that we're using that opportunity to highlight the need to continue to be vigilant," said Downing. "And when loopholes like this come up, we want to close them."

Sheffield resident Moira Banks-Dobson, 24, was killed in the February crash, and Russell Brown, 52, of Great Barrington, was seriously in jured. It was later revealed that Weller had drunken driving convictions in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York and Vermont, though his past record was not always considered in the cases.

Banks-Dobson's family mem bers have since advocated for tighter laws. Banks-Dobson's father, Ted Dobson, praised the change.

"It's a good start," said Dobson. "People have to know the severity of drunk driving."

Dobson wants to see uniform laws in all 50 states, saying he believes Weller would have been "reeled in a lot sooner" if that had been the case in states where he was arrested.

Pignatelli, who has introduced his own legislation that would identify drunk drivers through their license, said it's more of a societal problem than a legislative problem, but he's in favor of anything that tries to make the roads safer.

"No law is going to stop everything," said Pignatelli, D-Lenox, "but I strongly support and encourage stricter penalties."

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