TRENTON - As the rows of red lights lit up on the vote tally board, Sherri Branca leaned back against the desk in the Assembly chamber, horrified. Ever since a drunken driver killed her son, Ricci Branca, she and her family have advocated for new restrictions on similar offenders, and now, at the pinnacle of their effort, it all appeared to be going down the drain.
But this was a joke: It was Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz's first bill. And in Trenton, lawmakers traditionally vote against a new member's first bill, before casting their real vote.
Everyone seemed to know that, except for Sherri and her husband, Ricci Branca Sr., who left Egg Harbor Township at 11 a.m. to make the afternoon session in Trenton.
"It's an initiation," Assemblyman Matt Milam, D-Cape May, Cumberland, Atlantic, whispered to Sherri as other Assembly members began laughing. She grasped her chest in relief. The Assembly then approved the bill 67-3 with five abstentions.
With a 35-0 vote later in the Senate, lawmakers gave final approval to Ricci's Law, sending Gov. Jon S. Corzine the bill that would require people convicted of driving while intoxicated with a blood alcohol content in excess of 0.15 percent to install ignition interlocks on their cars for six months to a year after the license suspension ends.
Subsequent offenses would require people to drive with the interlocks - which take breath samples from drivers before allowing them to operate their vehicles - for one to three years after the license suspension ends.
Bill amendments this month made clear that motorists stopped by police have no right to refuse breath tests, and allowed people below 150 percent of the federal poverty line to qualify for interlocks for free or at reduced rates.
Corzine is expected to sign the bill later this week, before he leaves office next Tuesday.
Before the Assembly vote, the Brancas sat in the back of the chamber with Donnah Marvel, each wearing matching light-blue Branca tribute T-shirts. They met because a drunken driver killed Marvel's son, Nikk, five years ago in Linwood.
Ricci Branca, was 17 when he was struck and killed while riding his bike along Ocean Drive near Ocean City in 2006. Stephen French, of Ocean City, the man who struck Branca and two of his friends, pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter and is serving a 16-year state prison sentence.
Nikk Marvel, 18, was walking along Route 9 in Linwood in 2004 when he was struck and killed by Paula Cicchinelli, of Somers Point, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Ricci Branca Sr. watched the legislators, arms crossed, eyes forward.
"We're here to keep - our kid's already killed - we're trying to keep other families from going through this matter," said Branca, who works at the William J. Hughes Technical Center in Egg Harbor Township. He said a man he worked with lost a son to a drunken driver years ago.
"I had no idea how hard it was, and all the suffering," he said.
Assemblymen Vince Polistina and John Amodeo, both R-Atlantic, came over to see them and shake their hands. "They've been wonderful," Sherri Branca said, "right from the beginning, with all of this."
Later, in the state Senate, Sherri Branca, Ricci Branca Sr. and Donnah Marvel stood behind the desks of Sens. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, and Nicholas Scutari, D-Middlesex, Somerset, Union, and pressed the "yes" button while the lawmakers looked on.
Whelan praised them, as Sherri Branca cried.
"They have chose to turn their personal tragedy into something so other families don't have to go through this," Whelan said.
After five years, their journey was all but complete. What now?
"Going to continue to work and make it better and better," Sherri Branca said earlier in the Assembly, "and we'll never give up because we don't want other families to go through what we did."
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