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The 'Mackey Bill': Tale of Persistence

Bricktown - When she is not busy with creative writing or original "pop" lyrics, or involved in some sort of project for her three sons, Barbara Mackey ponders strategy to push S-49, her "bill" in the Legislature. If the measure becomes law, it would give the police power to demand blood or urine tests for injured or unconscious drivers suspected of being drunk or under the influence of narcotics.

Police officers throughout the state, as well as doctors and hospital administrators, have championed S-49 because it would give them another clear-cut testing weapon against suspected drunken drivers. All are awaiting Mrs. Mackey's next move.

In a two-year, "one-woman" campaign, she promoted, pleaded and pushed the bill through committees, to unanimous approval in the Senate and to the floor of the Assembly before its progress stalled.

Some Assemblymen who believed the measure to be "an infringement on personal rights" blocked a vote in the lower house and had the bill referred to the Judiciary Committee for another review. Some people, like Lieut. James Forcinito of the Vineland Police Department, who is president of the Fraternal Order of Police, a statewide organization, believe that Mrs. Mackey can get the ball rolling again.

Mrs. Mackey concedes that she is somewhat "deflated" by the Assembly action, but not discouraged. "I'll wait," she said. "Frankly, after two years on the telephone - and spending more than $600 in tolls - I'm tired, but I'm going to keep after them."

Senator John F. Russo, the Ocean County Democrat who sponsored S-49 two years ago at Mrs. Mackey's urging, and Assemblyman John Paul Doyle, also an Ocean County Democrat, who guided it through the lower house, find themselves referring to the measure as "Mrs. Mackey's bill."

It is also referred to as her bill by spokesmen for the Fraternal Order of Police, the New Jersey Medical Society and the stat's Association of Chiefs of Police, as well as the state's Hospital Association, all or which formally endorsed the measure and sent representatives to speak before committees of both houses.

New Jersey law already recognizes "implied consent" for the police to order Breathalizer tests for drivers suspected of being intoxicated. and calls for a hearing on a 90-day license revocation for those drivers who refuse. However, a Breathalizer test can be administered only in a police station.

In a hospital, only a blood test can determine the level of alcohol - or narcotics - in the blood of a driver who is injured or unconscious, and hospitals and doctors have been hesitant about, or opposed to, taking tests without the patient's consent.

S-49 would extend the "implied consent" to the hospital, besides adding the advantage - as Assembleyman Doyle has emphasized - of detecting the presence of narcotics. But Assemlyman Anthony M. Villane Jr., Republican of Monmouth County, said it would "deprive people of their rights."

"Blood is an organ," he said. "It is needed to live, and you can't take a piece of someone's body and use it against him and then say 'If you don't like it, we'll take your license away.'"

Mrs. Mackey scoffs at that contention.

"Blood tests are administered to pregnant women to protect their babies, to people who want to get married," she said. "Mr. Villane does not offer a valid argument."

Assemblyman Martin A. Herman, Democrat of Gloucester County and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said there was "some confusion" about the law and "we need more time to work it all out."

Mrs. Mackey, who is 33 years old and a part-time theatrical performer with a children's repertory company at Ocean County Community College, witnessed a serious automobile accident on July 10, 1976.

She and her husband, James, a glazier, were riding on a Wall Township highway when a speeding car narrowly missed their vehicle and then slammed into another car occupied y a man and a woman and their two children. All four were injured, the man seriously.

The driver who caused the accident, Mrs. Mackey said, crawled from beneath his overturned car. He was only slightly injured.

"It was plan that he was drunk," Mrs. Mackey said, "and a policeman on the scene so stated when he prepared to take him to a hospital and asked my husband and me to appear as witnesses."

At the hearing later, however, Mrs. Mackey was shocked to learn that the driver had been charged only with careless driving. The police officer, she said, explained that he could not get a blood test of the driver taken at the hospital, and that the judge, who assessed a small fine, said he could "do nothing about it."

That touched off Mrs. Mackey's campaign, which began with petitions, telephone calls and, eventually, the support of the police, doctors and hospital administrators and the attention of Senator Russo.

An example of the kind of dispute that S-40 could eliminate occurred in Cumberland County last March.

Patrolman Martin Dunn wanted to bring obstruction-of-justice charged against Millville Hospital for refusing to take a blood sample from an unconscious driver suspected of being drunk. Patrolman Dunn had asked a hospital nurse to administer the test, but she refused, and Alfred Fletcher, the hospital's administrator, supported the nurse's stand.

The Cumberland County Prosecutor, William P. Doherty Jr., ruled there was "no chargeable violation" on the part of the hospital, and recommended waiting for the outcome of "Mrs. Mackey's bill."

Assemblyman Doyle said: "I think the Assembly must be more educated regarding the good points [of S-49]. Perhaps the idea has simply not matured yet. I recall that, when Senator first moved it, the bill attracted only seven affirmative votes, only to return and receive unanimous support."

Mrs. Mackey once led a successful campaign to obtain a traffic light at a dangerous intersection near her home. But it is a mystery to some people why she campaigns so vigorously for a bill that would never affect her day-to-day existence.

In fact, Mrs. Mackey cannot even remember the names of the people involved in the accident that started it all nearly two years ago.

Mrs. Mackey said, "I guess I've always been a little turned off by people who, when they recognize the need for something, begin by saying, 'There ought to be a law,' when they actually should be out there trying to get such a law."

Carlo M. Saltdella is a freelance writer who specializes in South Jersey events.

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