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Another Look At The Motivation For Massachusetts’ “Melanie’s Law”

Just over a month after the high profile acquittal of Casey Anthony, Caylee Anthony’s grandparents and crowds of others memorialized what would have been the toddler’s birthday, CBS reported on August 10, 2011. The tribute to the child’s short life seems to have spurred renewed interest in “Caylee’s Law,” a proposed bill that would make a parents’ failure to report a child missing or dead within 24 hours or 1 hour, respectively, a felony. The widespread support for “Caylee’s Law” should prompt consideration of reactive legislation named after children who have suffered tragic deaths, such as Massachusetts’ own “Melanie’s Law,” which was passed in 2005 to enhance punishments for Massachusetts OUI/DUI/drunk driving offenders.

“Melanie’s Law” was named after Melanie Powell, a 13-year-old who, while walking to a beach in Marshfield, was killed by a drunk driver. The driver, who had a prior OUI conviction, was convicted of motor vehicle homicide and drunk driving. She was sentenced to 2 ½ years in state prison and two years of post-release probation. Melanie’s parents and grandfather then started a push for tougher drunk driving legislation. “Melanie’s Law,” which came in the wake of public anger , was the result.

Laws fueled by public outcry and named after deceased children tend to be counterproductive and poorly-reasoned. Too often, consideration of the policy behind such laws is lacking at best. These kinds of laws are frequently designed to appease an outraged public , and bad knee-jerk laws are passed in an emotional haze. Still, some legislators use these “tough” laws as a tool to garner support and win votes. Attaching the name of a child victim to proposed legislation is another powerful tool for legislators championing such laws. This tactic creates the perception that a vote against the law is a vote against the child, curbing opposition.

There are several examples of laws named after young victims, particularly in the area of sex crimes. The Jacob Wetterling Act, the Adam Walsh Act, and Dru’s Law are just a few of the many. While most would agree that prevention of sex crimes is an important goal, many have criticized these laws because they do not do much in terms of achieving that purpose. Perhaps the most common criticism is that blanket sex offender registries make it difficult to differentiate between dangerous convicted criminals and those convicted of sex crimes in relatively inoffensive circumstances, such as a teenager who had consensual sex with his barely underage teenager girlfriend. One can draw parallels between this type of indiscriminate grouping and the way in which Melanie’s Law strips the courts of discretion in certain cases and closes out consideration of the unique qualities of OUI defendants.

Possibly the most troubling characteristic of reactive, named laws is the tendency to stack the deck against criminal defendants even further. Despite the presumption of innocence, fighting criminal charges, such as Massachusetts OUI/DUI/drunk driving charges, is often an uphill battle. To speak with an aggressive Massachusetts OUI lawyer who can fight for you, call Stephen Neyman at 617-263 6800.

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