Massachusetts Vehicular Homicide Case Results In Appeals Court Ruling: Judges Can’t Unilaterally “Upgrade” Criminal Charges.

Here’s an interesting decision handed down from the Massachusetts Appeals Court recently. Seems a Barnstable District Court judge overstepped his authority in 2007 when he unilaterally upgraded, or beefed up, the charges that the Commonwealth had tried a defendant on involving a 2006 motor vehicle fatality on Cape Cod. The Cape and Island District Attorney’s office had charged the defendant, Gerard Williams, of Cotuit, with vehicular homicide while operating under the influence of alcohol, and also charged him with a separate count of operating a motor vehicle to endanger. After a jury-waived bench trial before Barnstable District Court judge Don Carpenter, the judge found the defendant guilty on the charge of operating a motor vehicle to endanger in the death of William Armstrong, 43, of Hyannis.

Armstrong was killed when his motorcycle collided with Williams’ car on Route 28 in West Yarmouth. On the more serious charge of vehicular homicide while operating under the influence of alcohol, the judge found Williams not guilty. This was chiefly due to the fact that the defendant’s .079 blood alcohol level – a fraction below the .08 legal limit for driving, as well as his four failed field sobriety tests – were ruled not admissible as evidence.

Citing his opinion that the defendant drove negligently in causing the accident, the judge decided to add a new, separate offense of negligent motor vehicle homicide, to the underlying guilty finding of operating to endanger conviction, and sentenced the defendant based on that new charge and finding. One reason that’s so important? On the “operating to endanger conviction,” a drivers’ license is typically suspended 60 days. Upon a conviction of motor vehicle homicide, drivers’ licenses are suspended for 15 years.

The three-judge Appeals Court panel found Carpenter’s change in the charges to be substantive because, among other reasons, the new vehicular homicide statute carries a more severe maximum sentence. Based on that finding, the panel found Carpenter was “without authority” to make the change.

So the Appeals Court’s message to lower court judges seems to be: While a hotel or an airline can make unilateral “upgrades” on their own, judges, thankfully, can’t.