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Close to 17,000 people died in alcohol-related car accidents last year in the US. Many states continue to toughen laws to keep drunk drivers off the road. But as NPR's Anthony Brooks reports, a pair of recent cases has prompted questions about whether some laws are too tough.
ANTHONY BROOKS reporting:
On a recent afternoon in Boston, Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney claimed an important victory in the fight against drunk driving.
Governor MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Massachusetts): This is a great day in the history of Massachusetts. What we're doing today will save innocent lives.
BROOKS: Romney just signed Melanie's Law, which strengthens drunk-driving penalties. The law is named for 13-year-old Melanie Powell, who was struck and killed by a repeat drunk driver in 2003. At an emotional statehouse ceremony, Melanie Powell's grandfather Ron Bersani spoke about his granddaughter and the law she inspired.
Mr. RON BERSANI (Grandfather of Melanie Powell): To most people, she's the little girl with the beautiful smile in the green-and-white cheerleader's uniform. We'll never know how many lives Melanie's Law will save, but we have faith that it will be many. So today we say, `Thank you, Melanie.'
(Soundbite of applause)
BROOKS: Among its measures, the law makes it easier to prosecute repeat offenders and imposes longer mandatory jail sentences on drunk drivers who kill. Governor Romney says the new law is needed in a state with one of the worst drunk-driving records in the country.
Gov. ROMNEY: We lose 200 people a year to drunk drivers. This will help change that. We should become one of the better-performing states when it comes to traffic fatalities relating to repeat-offending drunk drivers, and that's what this is about.
BROOKS: While Massachusetts illustrates the need for tougher laws, Washington, DC's, law was perhaps too tough. Just ask Debra Bolton. The 45-year-old lawyer first told her story to The Washington Post. Bolton says she was pulled over after dinner by a police officer because she had inadvertently left her headlights off.
Ms. DEBRA BOLTON (Lawyer): He asked me, `Have you had anything to drink tonight?' And I said, `Well, yes, I had a glass of red wine with my dinner.' He said, `Are you aware that in the District, you can be arrested if you've had anything to drink?' And the next thing you know, I was being searched and handcuffed for driving under the influence.
BROOKS: After a night in jail, she was charged with DUI. A Breathalyzer test found Bolton had a blood-alcohol level of .03, well below the .08 standard that all 50 states use to determine if a person is drunk. It took her months to get the charges dropped and her record cleared. A DC police spokesman said the department doesn't comment on specific cases, but at the time of Bolton's cases, DC had a so-called zero-tolerance law; any measurable amount of alcohol in your blood could lead to arrest. Again, Debra Bolton.
Ms. BOLTON: I did not know this was the law. You have a glass of wine and you can be arrested, and you're basically guilty until proven innocent.
Mr. CHUCK HURLEY (CEO, Mothers Against Drunk Driving): In Washington, DC, the media has portrayed law enforcement as working to snare one-drink drivers. And we not only find that false, we find it offensive.
BROOKS: That's Chuck Hurley, the CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. He says when it comes to drunk drivers, law enforcement faces a tough challenge.
Mr. HURLEY: Drunk driving is the most frequently committed violent crime in America. Law enforcement is out there protecting the public from people who, almost like terrorists, are killing and maiming far too many.
BROOKS: But Hurley says MADD is comfortable with action taken just last week by the DC government to ease the zero-tolerance law in the wake of the Bolton case. Now a driver with such a low blood-alcohol content won't be subjected to arrest.
Another person who says some laws go too far is Virginia attorney Corinne Magee, who's challenging a time-tested standard used to prosecute drunk drivers across the country. All 50 states recognize that a driver with a blood-alcohol content of .08 or higher is considered intoxicated. Magee argues that presumption violates a defendant's constitutional right to be presumed innocent.
Ms. CORINNE MAGEE (Attorney): Every single one of those individuals are presumed to be innocent until the prosecution proves them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. And, yes, there are a lot of tragedies out there involving drunk drivers, but it doesn't mean that we should throw away the Constitution in order to be able to prosecute them.
BROOKS: Citing a 30-year-old Supreme Court precedent, Magee sold her case to Fairfax County Judge Ian O'Flaherty, who has since dismissed charges against three alleged drunk drivers. O'Flaherty didn't respond to requests by NPR to discuss this, but attorney Magee says his rulings are correct.
Ms. MAGEE: I think he's a very brave judge. It's a very unpopular position for a judge to take right now, but he feels strongly about the constitutional issues.
BROOKS: Prosecutors in Virginia say Judge O'Flaherty is wrong, and they're hopeful the state's appeals court will eventually back them up. Chuck Hurley of MADD agrees and would hate to see similar challenges nationwide.
Mr. HURLEY: And we're very concerned that the effect of these rulings is to put drunk drivers back on the street.
BROOKS: Back in Boston, the talk is about strengthening laws, not challenging them. Forty-eight hours after Melanie's Law was enacted, two more Massachusetts residents were dead, killed by allegedly drunk drivers. Under the new law, if they're convicted as repeat offenders, they could go to jail for up to 20 years. Anthony Brooks, NPR News, Boston.
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