Acting tough

Like Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney spent decades running for president and lost. Part of his plan was to appear tough on crime with a capital punishment bill so narrowly drafted that it would never be used (and so could never be used against him).

Lawmakers rejected his bill and positioned themselves as tough on drunk driving instead. With a law that isn’t used more than once or twice a year, and that has a Boston Globe reporter upset.

Massachusetts prosecutors can charge a traffic fatality with alcohol involvement as motor vehicle homicide with a 1-15 year sentencing range, or under the 2005 law as motor vehicle manslaughter with a 5-20 year sentencing range.

Other than the prison term there is little difference between the crimes. Lawyers can argue all day over the difference between “operating to endanger” and “reckless driving”, but in the end the jury will do what the jury wants to do. As I see it, manslaughter means a fatal accident with a sympathetic victim.

Fortunately, charging the wrong crime does not affect traffic safety.

Repeat offenses were already very rare before the harsher law. That’s not a testament to the rehabilitative effect of the criminal justice system. Repeat offenses are rare because all offenses are rare. Out of the millions of times each year somebody drives drunk in Massachusetts, there are fewer than 200 alcohol-related deaths. Who gets to be involved in those is largely due to chance.

Getting arrested for simple DUI is a real risk. You probably know somebody with a DUI. The odds of getting caught may be one in a thousand, but if you go out drinking every weekend that adds up.

Getting arrested for DUI homicide is too remote to contemplate. One year or five, it’s not going to happen so why worry? How many people do you know with a DUI homicide conviction? I knew a guy who got the next step down, DUI with serious bodily injury. He didn’t realize he was over the limit. He normally didn’t drink, so he wasn’t accustomed to planning a ride home when he did.

The crime of DUI does not require any intent to break the law, and is often charged in cases where the driver was too drunk to be thinking about criminal law.

The Globe article uses the euphemism “justice.” It’s a code word for vengeance. In American criminal law retribution is an allowable reason to punish a criminal. But in this case I’m not worried if the system chooses not to exercise that power.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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