Nick Fournier would have graduated from college this spring.
Instead, Fournier's family, teachers and former classmates assembled this morning in the auditorium at Missisquoi Valley Union High School in Swanton, where Fournier attended high school, to watch Gov. Peter Shumlin sign "Nick's Law" — legislation meant to prevent the kinds of drunk-driving accidents that claimed Fournier's life in 2007.
Fournier was killed on Interstate 89 in Colchester by a repeat drunk driver going the wrong way. He was 18 years old. Backed by a dedicated crew of Fournier's friends and family, Franklin County legislators made two failed attempts to enact a "Nick's Law" that would impose tougher penalties on repeat drunk drivers before finally winning passage this year.
Asked by reporters how he felt after the signing ceremony, Fournier's dad, Rene Fournier, said: "Feels good. Really good. Also sad. Brings back a lot of memories."
Nick's Law creates a mandatory five-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of DUI with death resulting. Also, it makes it a crime for a person to knowingly let someone else drive their car while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Also, anyone convicted for DUI with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 or above, or twice the legal limit, will be barred for three years from operating a motor vehicle with anything higher than a .02.
Notably, the law also removes the state's alcohol-testing program from the Department of Health and places it in the Department of Public Safety, which has a fully accredited forensic lab. That move is a response to persistent problems with Vermont's breath-testing equipment that were first uncovered by Seven Days and have led to dozens of drunk driving cases being tossed.
Speaking to the assembled crowd, Shumlin vowed that his administration will take steps to ensure breath tests taken on DataMaster DMT instruments remain reliable evidence to convict drunk drivers.
Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn, whose department with assume control of the alcohol testing program in coming months, vigorously defended the state's breath-testing equipment in brief remarks to the crowd. Flynn said the department has "already undertaken a study to see how we're conducted business now.
(Photo at right is Nick Fournier)
"There is nothing wrong with the instrument," Flynn said. "The instrument does what it's supposed to. We're going to implement rules to make that instrument applicable to use when officers go to courts."
Shumlin, Flynn and other speakers who crowded around the podium all cautioned that Nick's Law won't stop drunk driving.
"DUI never stops," said Flynn, the former state's attorney in Orleans County. "I've been in public safety most of my adult life. One thing I've found about DUI is, it keeps growing. So many times through the course of my career I've had to meet with families who've had a relative, family member or friend die at the hands of a drunk driver.
"What this bill does," Flynn continued, "is it tells repeat offenders, 'You do this, you're going to jail.' There's nothing wrong with putting a repeat offender in jail. Getting behind the wheel drunk is a decision someone makes. When they make that decision, we need to be strong and swift in our punishment and that's what deterrence is all about."
The high school auditorium was awash in royal-blue T-shirts with the word "Nick" written in white. Other shirts read: "Nick's Law - 5-31-11 - We Passed It!" Several times audience members gave lawmakers, the governor and Nick's parents standing ovations.
Nick's aunt, Betty Cheney, made an emotional and personal plea to the high schoolers in attendance, many of whom will graduate in just over a week.
"Many people drink. Actually, I think we have a lot of seniors here who can legally drink in Canada," said Cheney (pictured with Shumlin at left). "But no one should drink and drive. You have no right to do that. If you call for a ride, no one is ever going to turn you down."
Cheney also acknowledged that Nick's Law, as passed, "isn't exactly what we envisioned Nick's Law to be." But she added, "We remain hopeful they will continue to look at DUI laws and recognize additional changes have to be made." Later, when asked if they had specific changes in mind, Cheney and Rene Fournier did not offer any.
Becky Phillips, a school psychologist at Missisquoi who sat behind me in the auditorium, says Nick's death threw the school of 1000 or so students into "shock" when it happened. Grief counselors were brought in from nearby mental health agencies to talk with distraught students. Phillips didn't know Nick personally but said his passing, while a terrible tragedy, created an opportunity to talk with students about the dangers of drunk driving in terms they could understand.
"Even if they didn't know Nick or his family, students see the shirts and know — you don't joke about drunk driving," Phillips said.
Photo at top courtesy of Gov. Peter Shumlin's office.