By Kyle Cheney, State House News Service
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, NOV. 3, 2011…..If a Massachusetts driving laws were on the books in Oklahoma in the 1990s, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, may never have been apprehended, a state lawmaker posited Thursday.
Rep. Daniel Winslow (R-Norfolk) said McVeigh was nabbed for a minor infraction, eventually leading to his arrest, trial and death sentence for his role in the bombing. But in Massachusetts, a decades-old law prohibits police from pulling over drivers for violations, if the drivers suspected of committing a crime happen to stop over the border in another community.
“In Massachusetts, Timothy McVeigh would have been let go,” Winslow said.
Hundreds of motorists who have committed violations – and potentially drunk drivers – have escaped prosecution because of a 1967 law that restricts police officers’ latitude in pulling over drivers beyond community borders, according to Massachusetts police chiefs who packed a State House hearing room.
At issue is a 1967 statute that police chiefs said was initially conceived to permit police to cross town lines in pursuit of a vehicle when they have reasonable suspicion that an arrestable offense has occurred. But courts ruled 20 years ago that the law prohibits police from charging drivers for minor infractions if those drivers stop their vehicles across town lines.
In other words, if a police officer in Wellesley signals for a driver to pull over for running a red light, but that driver doesn’t complete stop until his car is in Natick, any evidence collected as a result of that traffic stop would be thrown out in court, said Terrence Cunningham, chief of the Wellesley Police Department.
Cunningham was among dozens of police chiefs on hand – including chiefs from Walpole, Dudley, Westborough, Kingston, Revere and Grafton – who urged support for two bills (H 2253 / S 662) that would permit police to cross town lines to make an “enforcement action.”
“The problem, which the public is largely unaware of, happens all the time,” Cunningham said.
Backers of the bill said police who suspect drunk drivers often pull those drivers over for minor infractions, only realizing that the driver is intoxicated when they approach the vehicle and smell alcohol. Under current law, they said, if drunk drivers pull across a town line when stopped for a minor infraction, police would likely arrest them to keep them off the road, but the cases would be thrown out because the evidence would be inadmissible in court.
The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Alice Peisch (D-Wellesley) in the House and Sen. Stephen Brewer (D-Barre) in the Senate, stipulates that “a police officer of a city or town may stop a person or vehicle in a city or town that borders the officer’s city or town if the officer has reason to believe that the person or vehicle recently traveled through his or her city or town under circumstances where the officer would have had the authority to stop the person or vehicle for the purpose of making an arrest, placing an operator in protective custody, issuing a citation or taking any other enforcement action.”
The bill, which is co-sponsored by 58 lawmakers, would put “real teeth into our drunk driving laws,” said Mark Leahy, head of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, who testified at the hearing.
“We cannot claim we are tough on drunk drivers while this loophole exists,” he said.
Rep. Eugene O’Flaherty (D-Chelsea), co-chair of the Judiciary Committee, said the bill has stalled for decades for “a multitude of reasons,” including questions from State Police about the jurisdiction of local police.
“Certainly you’ll hear that some lawyers have an issue with it … in terms of the extent that you allow police jurisdiction,” he said.
O’Flaherty’s co-chair, Sen. Cynthia Creem (D-Newton), said the bill “makes sense.” She noted that none of the opponents testified at the hearing to outline their concerns.
At the hearing, Sen. Katherine Clark (D-Melrose) joined two district attorneys – John Blodgett and Michael O’Keefe – to press for a wholesale rewrite of the state’s impaired driving laws, which they said have become convoluted and confusing after nearly a century of legislative changes to the statute.
Clark said Massachusetts impaired driving laws law had been changed more than 60 times since the early 20th-Century, the advent of automobiles in the United States. O’Keefe called the current law a “mishmash” that can result in erroneous jury instructions, faulty interpretations and general misunderstandings of the statute.
By Kyle Cheney, State House News Service