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GOP senators seek hearings on drunken driving acquittals

The four Republicans in the state Senate yesterday called on the Legislature to hold hearings on the state’s drunken driving laws in response to reports that judges acquit more than 80 percent of motorists who fight charges of operating under the influence in trials without juries.

The acquittal rate reported by the Globe Spotlight Team and a spate of arrests of repeat offenders this month - one of whom was charged with operating under the influence for the 11th time - indicate that motorists are thumbing their nose at the state’s laws, the senators wrote.

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“We believe that in light of the most recent litany of repeat drunk drivers taking to the wheel in flagrant disregard of the law and the public welfare, along with the astonishing level of leniency that trial judges are showing to those charged with driving while under the influence, that oversight hearings are necessary,’’ the Republicans wrote to the two chairmen of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, who are both Democrats.

Senate minority leader Bruce Tarr, one of the four Republicans, said in an interview that he hopes the committee holds at least one hearing and that legislators hear from a variety of people, including prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges.

“This might be a good opportunity for judges to step away from the bench and explain what’s going on,’’ he said. “There’s been a lot written about them, and a lot of it hasn’t been positive.’’

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In three recent articles, the Spotlight Team reported that district court judges are acquitting accused drunk drivers at a rate that is about 30 percentage points higher than that of juries, a degree of leniency that specialists have said is virtually unsurpassed in the United States. Some individual judges acquitted more than 90 percent of defendants who come before them.

Although Republican initiatives often go nowhere in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, Tarr said he expects this issue could be different. “I don’t think public safety is a partisan issue,’’ he said. “We worked on Melanie’s Law together.’’

He was referring to the law passed by the Legislature in 2005 that toughened penalties for drunken driving and for refusing to give a breath sample.

Neither Senator Cynthia Stone Creem nor Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, who chair the joint committee, could be reached for comment last night.

On Oct. 31, in response to the series, the state’s highest court announced a formal inquiry into whether the acquittal rate was unusual and excessive. The review is being led by Jack Cinquegrana, a former assistant US attorney and past president of the Boston Bar Association.

House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo released a statement last night that did not directly address the Republicans’ call for hearings, but described the assertions in the Spotlight Team series troubling and said that he awaits the results of the Supreme Judicial Court review.

After the Spotlight Team’s report, some of the state’s district attorneys renewed their call to scrap the current system under which an OUI defendant can opt, often at the last minute, for a bench trial.

Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz is pushing legislation that would allow prosecutors to object to any jury trial waiver. That wouldmean adopting a federal model that requires that decision to be made jointly by the defense and prosecution.

DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray said they would be willing to discuss that proposal with the district attorneys.

Governor Deval Patrick has said he is concerned about the issue, calling the statistics cited in the Globe report troubling.

Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com; Bombardieri can be reached at bombardieri@globe.com.
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