Significant changes were made to "Melanie's Law" during this past legislative session in Massachusetts. "Melanie's Law" is, of course, the law prohibiting operating under the influence of liquor (OUI/DUI/"drunk driving"). General Laws Chapter 90, section 24 (together with its related subsections) spells out the details. Melanie's Law, which originally passed in October, 2005, was named for a 13-year-old Marshfield girl who was struck and killed by a car driven by a repeat OUI offender.

The law allows prior convictions to be introduced in court proceedings in OUI cases and doubles the minimum mandatory sentences for motor vehicle manslaughter in such cases. Anyone convicted of operating under the influence while under suspension for a prior operating under the influence charge faces a mandatory minimum one year in jail. The law also requires repeat offenders to have interlocking devices installed in any vehicle they drive. The device is essentially a portable and permanent breathalyzer intended to prevent the car from starting if the driver has had too much to drink.

Among the recent changes to Melanie's Law this session was a Supreme Judicial Court decision prohibiting the Registry of Motor Vehicles from using "continued without a finding" cases as "convictions" when determining what sanctions to bring against repeat offenders. The SJC stood firm when prodded about the decision. "If the Legislature, in enacting Melanie's Law, had wanted to include an admission to sufficient facts in the definition of 'convicted,' it could have done so explicitly," wrote Supreme Judicial Court Justice Margot Botsford.

A second development in this area was the legislature's review and rejection of Senate Bill 1746, "An Act Relative to Ignition Interlock Devices." Ignition interlocking devices, also known as Breath Alcohol Ignition Interlock Devices (BAIID), are being used across the country to measure drivers' alcohol levels. When one is installed in a vehicle, the driver must breathe into a sensor before the car will start. If the driver's measured alcohol level is over a certain limit, the car will not start. The limits vary from state to state, but they are low - typically from only .02% to .04% - and far below the legal limit (.08%) sufficient to prove OUI cases.

Senate Bill 1746 would have required the use of an Ignition Interlocking device for first-time OUI/ DUI offenders. The legislature's rejection of this bill - as well as the rejection of "CWOF's" as convictions - perhaps signals that the tide is turning somewhat from the harsher and harsher penalties that have been added over the years. In addition to civil liberties concerns, the legislature seemed to recognize that anyone can make one mistake. It is more important and effective to treat the repeat offenders harshly, while focusing on treatment for first-time offenders.

When reached at his Boston office yesterday, noted defense attorney David Yannetti commented, "The law pertaining to OUI offenses in Massachusetts is one of the most complicated and modified pieces of legislation in criminal jurisprudence. Given how frequently the law has changed and been modified - both by our legislature and our appeals courts - there are many traps for the unwary. Anyone charged with such an offense should seek advice from an experienced criminal defense lawyer before taking any action." Attorney Yannetti is the lead counsel for the Yannetti Criminal Defense Law Firm in Boston.