Push to change punishment for first-time drunk drivers in Massachusetts

FALMOUTH, Mass. — Retired Massachusetts State Police Sergeant John Kotfila, Sr. grieves for his son every day.

"They say time heals all wounds. It doesn't heal all wounds," Kotfila said.

John R. Kotfila, Jr. was a Hillsborough County, Florida sheriff’s deputy in 2016, when he was hit and killed in his cruiser by a drunk wrong-way driver.

"It’s tough to live with," Kotfila said.

But through his pain, Kotfila has found a purpose.

He and his wife Theresa are working with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to change how Massachusetts courts punish drunk drivers.

“License suspension really doesn’t work,” said MADD Massachusetts Program Director Mary Kate DePamphilis.

In 2019, MADD said in-car Breathalyzers, also known as ignition interlock devices, have stopped 3-million drunk drivers from starting vehicles since 2006.

The organization wants to make it mandatory in Massachusetts for first-time drunk drivers to have ignition interlock devices installed in their cars.

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“The interlock devices are essentially a Breathalyzer that gets installed into your car and you cannot start the car unless you blow into it with a sober reading,” DePamphilis said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in 2011 ignition interlock devices reduced drunk driving offenses by 67-percent when compared to suspending someone’s license alone.

"It’s really an honor system to take somebody's license away and they've already done something that isn't necessarily honorable and they're just driving anyway," DePamphilis said.

Massachusetts drivers are only required to use an ignition interlock device if they’re convicted for OUI two or more times.

DePamphilis said MADD has lobbied lawmakers on Beacon Hill for years to make ignition interlock devices mandatory for all drunk driving offenders.

“What’s the been? I really can’t speak to that,” Barnstable State Representative Timothy Whelan said.

Rep. Whelan, a retired Massachusetts State Police sergeant, introduced House Bill 1580 to overhaul the sentencing process for drunk drivers.

The bill, along with Senate Bill 2137, would expand ignition interlocks to first-time offenders and replace hardship licenses for alcohol-related OUIs with ignition interlock restricted licenses.

It would also require drivers to have a clean record for six months before they remove the interlock devices, and replace lifetime suspensions for a fifth OUI with an ignition interlock license.

“This is a compassionate, understanding way that we can get people back behind the wheel safely, knowing they’re sober, ensuring their sobriety, understanding they still have responsibilities in life,” Whelan said. “This is going to improve public safety on the roadways throughout the Commonwealth.”

But Hanover defense attorney James Milligan disagrees.

"You can get around anything if you say it’s for public safety," Milligan said.

Milligan said he has concerns about the accuracy of the ignition interlock devices. He doesn’t see the device as a one-size-fits-all solution.

"People who have first offenses, have a lifetime of no issues and make one mistake, that's not a person that should have an ignition interlock device," Milligan said.

Governor Charlie Baker supports Whelan's legislation and introduced similar interlock language in a comprehensive road safety bill in 2019.

The governor’s bill, along with the House and Senate versions, were referred to the Joint Committee on Transportation.

The committee held two hearings last year and is expected to release a report March 4.

Kotfila, Sr. believes the courts should be doing everything they can to keep drunk drivers off the road, even someone who only made one mistake in their life.

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