Court ruling limits reach of OUI repeat offender penalties: License suspensions could be reduced

June 25, 2012
By Parker Scheer LLP on June 25, 2012 10:05 AM |

A recent court ruling in Massachusetts could potentially affect thousands of motor vehicle licenses suspended under the state's drunk driving laws for repeat offenders.
As a result of the court's decision, you could seek to reduce your license suspension from three years to 180 days if your first offense ended with a "continuance without a finding" (CWOF) and probation, and you subsequently refused a breathalyzer for your second offense.

I have over 25 years of experience handling criminal defense matters, including OUI offenses. My initial consultation is free and I welcome the opportunity to discuss your OUI matter with you.

First-time offenders often will admit to sufficient facts for a finding of guilty of operating under the influence (OUI), and accept probation and admission to an alcohol or substance abuse treatment program. The charges are usually dropped after the offender successfully completes the terms of probation.

A CWOF is commonly used to resolve first-time OUI offenses. In fact, over 33,000 OUI cases in 2008-2011 were resolved by way of this type of plea deal, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

The highest court in Massachusetts recently faced the issue of whether a CWOF should be considered a "conviction" for purposes of triggering harsher repeat offender penalties against a man who was arrested a second time for OUI and refused a breathalyzer test. The man's first OUI arrest resulted in a CWOF after he admitted to sufficient facts for a finding of violating the law and agreed to probation. The charges were later dropped after he completed the terms of his probation.

Massachusetts law suspends a motor vehicle license for 180 days when a first-time offender refuses to take a breathalyzer test. But the penalty is increased to three years for a second-time offender who refuses a breathalyzer test.

The Supreme Judicial Court in Souza v. Registrar of Motor Vehicles ruled that the man's CWOF was not a "conviction" within the strict interpretation of the law, and overturned a lower court's ruling that his license should be suspended for three years.

The court in a unanimous opinion said: "By its terms, the definition of 'convicted' [in the statute] ... confines itself to a guilty plea, a plea of nolo contendre, a finding of guilty, or a judgment of guilty."

The RMV urged the court to look beyond the express terms in the statutory definition and construe "convicted" as encompassing a CWOF since it is essentially a guilty plea. The court, the RMV argued, should uphold the remedial purpose of the repeat offender statute (popularly known as Melanie's Law), which is to increase the penalties for repeat drunk drivers.

However, the court rejected this public policy argument and restricted itself to interpreting the actual terms used by the Legislature in passing Melanie's Law in 2005. The law was named after 13-year-old Melanie Powell of Marshfield who was killed by a repeat drunk driver as she was crossing the street in 2003.

The court's decision applies to subsequent offenses and refusals to take a breathalyzer test. It doesn't apply to subsequent OUI convictions.

A potential ramification of the SJC's ruling is that prosecutors could be less likely to agree to a CWOF, and more motivated to pursue drunk driving trials for first-time offenders.
However, the impact of the ruling might be short lived as momentum is building in the Legislature to amend Melanie's Law in direct response to the court's decision.

The Massachusetts Senate recently voted to treat a CWOF as a conviction under the drunk driving laws, and the House is considering a similar bill. This legislation is being considered as part of the current state budget debate. It's presently unclear if the bill, if passed, would be applied retroactively. The bill would need the governor's signature before becoming law.

If you or a family member has been charged with criminal activity, please contact Parker | Scheer LLP for a free consultation with one of our experienced Criminal Defense Lawyers.