In case you missed it over the course of a busy news weekend, there was a Friday night drunken driving arrest in Billerica that was jaw-dropping even in the context of the Bay State’s lax repeat offender laws.
Police say Guy Patierno, 62, was at the wheel of the Ford Econovan they saw weaving between lanes on Route 495, traveling 87 mph in a 65-mph zone. It was the 12th time Patierno was charged with drunken driving.
Think about that: 12 times is a stunning number by any estimation. Equally upsetting was the laundry list of charges related to Friday’s incident: Operating under the influence of alcohol (12th offense), operating on a revoked license for OUI while OUI, operating with a revoked license (subsequent offense), operating to endanger, giving a false name to police, possession of a dangerous weapon (blackjack), resisting arrest, forged inspection sticker, open container of alcohol, speeding, and failure to stay in marked lanes.
Boxborough police Chief Warren Ryder told the Lowell Sun that due to his earlier drunken driving convictions, Patierno had his license revoked for life in 2010.
That’s all well and good, but it begs the question: Why wasn’t he in jail?
Drunken driving is a deadly serious offense. According to the advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving, 9,878 people were killed in drunken driving-related crashes in 2011, the latest year for which statistics were available. Another 350,000 or so were injured.
And repeat offenders make up a third of all drunken driving arrests, according to the federal Department of Transportation, with 50 percent to 75 percent of drunken drivers continuing to drive on a suspended license.
“People who drive time and time again without a license and/or under the influence of alcohol, as evidenced in (the Billerica) case, not only disrespect the law but also put public safety at risk,” said Gloucester Republican Bruce Tarr, the Senate minority leader. “Clearly, these types of repeated acts can’t be tolerated. While we made significant progress last year in increasing the fines for unlicensed driving, it’s clear that for some cases the sanction of jail time is necessary.
“We need to act clearly and decisively to send a message that repeated instances of driving without a license and while intoxicated won’t be tolerated in Massachusetts.”
Last year, Tarr was able to get some changes made to the existing law that increased the financial penalties for driving without a license. Under the old law, the fine was between $100 and $1,000 for a conviction. The new law calls for a fine of not more than $500 for a first offense, $500 to $1,000 for a second offense, and between $1,000 and $2,000 for any subsequent offense.
Yet it’s not just those driving on suspended licenses who are the problem. A Boston Herald investigation last year revealed there are still more than 1,000 drivers in Massachusetts with five or more drunken driving convictions who are still driving on valid licenses.
In one local case last year, James P. Fitzgerald of Essex was arrested for drunken driving by Ipswich police, who said he was driving erratically on Route 1A. Fitzgerald already had four drunken driving convictions, in 1984 and 1989 in Salem, and in 1993 and 1999 in Ipswich. The 1999 conviction stemmed from a 1998 arrest that included a police chase. Yet Fitzgerald still had a valid license at the time of his arrest.
Tarr and the Republican caucus have filed a bill this session that would include jail time for those who continue to drive after a lifetime license revocation. That seems like common sense. It’s also time to revisit the issue of how drivers can still hold a license after several drunken driving offenses.
Maybe this is the year the entire Legislature takes the public’s safety seriously.