Rep. Jewett honored for his efforts on DUI law
RIPTON — The national organization Mothers Against Drunk Driving, known as MADD, is honoring Rep. Willem Jewett of Ripton as its “2016 Vermont Legislator of the Year” for his support of a new state law that expands the required use of ignition interlock devices for people convicted of driving under the influence.
Jewett, a Democrat, was the lead sponsor of bill H.560, which was ultimately passed as part of Vermont’s 2016-2017 transportation bill.
Jewett, during a phone interview last week, said his intense lobbying for the bill was in large part inspired by the tragic deaths of some local cyclists struck by motorists whom authorities have alleged were drunk.
It was on April 14, 2015, that Kelly Boe, 55, of Middlebury lost his life after being struck by a vehicle while riding his bike with his wife Kathy on Hamilton Road in Weybridge. The driver — 28-year-old Nathan Dearing — pleaded innocent in Addison County Superior Court, criminal division, to a felony count of driving under the influence with death resulting, and a misdemeanor count of driving with a suspended license for the fifth time. That case is still being adjudicated.
On June 17, 2015, authorities alleged that Holly Gonyeau, 42, of Ferrisburgh was driving under the influence when she struck and killed 60-year-old Dr. Kenneth Najarian of Charlotte while he was cycling on Greenbush Road in Ferrisburgh. Last November, Gonyeau was sentenced to one year probation and 80 hours of community service after pleading no contest to the charge.
It was with those and other victims in mind that Jewett advocated for H.560, which among other things makes it mandatory for defendants convicted of their second and subsequent DUI offenses, to equip their vehicles with an ignition interlock system. Such a device requires the driver to blow into a mouthpiece to ensure sobriety before his or her vehicle will start up. The system includes video safeguards to make sure the driver can’t falsify the testing by having another person blow into the mouthpiece.
“MADD commends you for your dedication and leadership in advancing MADD’s mission,” reads a letter to Jewett from Frank Harris, the organization’s director of state government affairs.
“Thank you for your work in saving lives and in being a strong advocate for victims of impaired driving.”
Jewett said he feels “very honored” by the MADD recognition. Jewett, who has served in the Legislature for 14 years, is a lawyer and an avid cyclist; he has decided not to run for re-election this year in the Addison-2 House district that includes Cornwall, Goshen, Hancock, Leicester, Ripton and Salisbury.
Jewett recalled the lengthy and circuitous process by which H.560 negotiated the Statehouse before becoming law. The bill earned a lot of bipartisan support, according to Jewett, though it drew some concerns. For example, advocates for low-income citizens said the ignition interlock requirement could become a significant financial blow for many Vermonters who are just getting by. Along with an installation fee, it costs the driver around $80 per month to rent the device, according to Jewett.
Ultimately, the Legislature created a fund to help subsidize the service for low-income residents, Jewett said.
Jewett said “several hundred people” — including cyclists — showed up at a rally for H.560 at the Statehouse last fall. Gubernatorial candidates Sue Minter and Phil Scott both spoke in favor of it.
“I couldn’t have done this without my (House Judiciary Committee) chair, Rep. Maxine Grad, and the committee buying into it and fighting for it,” Jewett said. “This was a team effort.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
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