Crackdown on repeat drunken drivers proposed

Staff Writer

Staff Writer

In the wake of the death of a local teen in an accident allegedly caused by a convicted drunken driver with numerous prior violations, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18) unveiled a package of legislative reforms specifically tailored to create harsher penalties for repeat offenders.

Buono announced her proposals March 24 at a press conference at the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office in New Brunswick, flanked by Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan, Assistant Prosecutor Nicholas Sewitch and Middlesex County Freeholder Chris Rafano, who chairs the Committee on Law and Public Safety.

On March 12, 17-year-old Michael Partipilo, Piscataway, a stand-out stu­dent at Metuchen’s St. Joseph’s High School, suffered fatal head injuries when his Toyota 4Runner was struck by a construc­tion van driven by Philip Gonzalez, 43, Edison, who authorities say al­legedly ran a red light at the in­ter­section of Washington and Centen­nial avenues.

Gonzalez’s blood alcohol level was reported to be 0.245, more than three times the legal limit.

Gonzalez, who has been charged with aggravated manslaughter, had four prior convictions for driving un­der the influence, according to state Motor Vehicle Commission records.

The last occurred in Metuchen in 1999, in which he was mistakenly sentenced to a six-month license sus­pension as opposed to the 10-year sus­pension mandated by law.

In 2002, 28,139 people were ar­rested in the state for drunken driv­ing, ac­cording to the state Adminis­trative Of­fice of the Courts. Of that number, nearly 20 percent of those individuals were charged for sec­ond or third of­fenses.

Buono proposed four reforms, the first of which aims to eliminate the kind of error that resulted in Gonza­lez getting off lightly after his fourth of­fense.

Buono’s proposal would require that, before sentencing, prosecutors and judges review the abstract records of a driver charged with driving under the influence, refusal to consent to a Breathalyzer test, driving while on the revoked list, or leaving the scene of an accident.

Second, Buono proposes eliminat­ing the "step down" provision to drunken driving statutes, which treats a second conviction as a first-time offense if it occurs more than 10 years after the first, and simi­larly treats a third of­fense as a sec­ond if it comes more than 10 years later.

"A pattern of drunk driving con­vic­tions is a pattern of drunk driv­ing convictions. Under this bill, sec­ond- and third-time offenders will be sen­tenced as such," she said.

Buono’s package also seeks to raise the minimum term of incar­ceration for driving while revoked from a pe­riod of 10 days to a mini­mum of 30 days.

Finally, Buono proposes raising the minimum amount of time an of­fender must spend at an Intoxi­cated Driver Resource Center.

When asked if she expects any op­position to her proposals, Buono said, "There’s always the risk of the restau­rant lobby, the alcohol lobby fighting it."

She noted that both lobbies were suc­cessful for a time in opposing the re­duction of the state’s legal blood alco­hol limit from 0.10 to .08.

"That took until we lost hundreds of millions of dollars in federal fund­ing," she said. "I think law en­force­ment, chiefs of police and prosecutors will get behind [this legislation]."

Buono said repeat offenders "are simply not getting the message."

In the case of Philip Gonzalez, "there was no indication that the driver ever received any meaning­ful help or treatment, in spite of his horri­ble driving record," Buono said.To that end, she said that increas­ing the amount of time offenders will spend in a resource center program is vital.

"With repeat offenders, there is an issue of substance abuse there, and there needs to be an element of treat­ment. We can’t simply address it from a punitive approach," she said.

Buono acknowledged that more se­vere penalties can’t completely remedy the situation and that there are those who will continue to drink and drive, even with a suspended license.

"There is no silver bullet; we know that," she said, but added there is a dire need "for anything to help dimin­ish the threat."