Important Massachusetts OUI/DUI Ruling by SJC On What Constitutes “Conviction”

As anyone who has visited the Massachusetts OUI/DUI charge pages of my website knows, Melanie’s Law was a new drunk driving law that the Massachusetts Legislature enacted in 2005. The law was named after Melanie Powell of Marshfield, a 13 year-old who was killed as she crossed a street in 2003 by a repeat drunken driver.

The law contained several changes to the Massachusetts drunk driving statute, but its primary purpose and goal was to stiffen the penalties for repeat drunk drivers. The law did this by graduating the punishment meted out for successive convictions of drunk driving. Relatively few people could argue with that goal, but as often happens when legislation is drafted in response to a tragedy, sometimes attention to the details goes missing. Such appears to be the case with a key section of Melanie’s Law, according to the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC.) Just yesterday, the court substantially narrowed the legal definition of a “conviction,” ruling that judicial dispositions (findings) that do not reflect a verdict of guilty, a plea of guilty, or a plea of “no contest,” do not constitute a “conviction” for purposes of penalties and punishment for multiple drunk driving offenses.

A little legal backgrounder: In Massachusetts, there is a type of plea that a first-time defendant can enter with the court, which is not exactly a “guilty” finding, nor is it a plea of “no contest” (which also constitutes a guilty finding.) This pleas is known as an “Admission To Sufficient Facts,” sometimes referred to as “Continued Without A Finding”, or CWOF. Primarily reserved for first time offenders in Massachusetts on a wide variety of offenses (not just a Massachusetts OUI/DWI charge,) a plea of Admission To Sufficient Facts, or a CWOF, essentially recognizes that if the Commonwealth were to prosecute the case, sufficient facts exist to secure a conviction, yet the Commonwealth and the defendant are spared a trial. The defendant is almost always placed on probation for a period of time, and if no further offenses are brought forward within that probationary period, the charges are dismissed.

How and why the SJC issued this ruling: Back in 1997, a defendant by the name of Souza was charged with first offense OUI/DUI, and entered a plea of Admission To Sufficient Facts. He was given a probation term, stayed out of trouble and the OUI charge was eventually dismissed. Fast forward 13 years to 2010, when Souza is arrested again on Massachusetts drunk driving charges. He declined to take a breathalyzer test, and as a Dedham MA OUI/DUI lawyer, I should add quickly here: Just because someone refuses to take a breathalyzer test does not mean he or she is legally impaired, or driving drunk. (I routinely advise that most people should not submit to a breathalyzer test.) Because Souza refused to take a breathalyzer, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles suspended his license for three years, citing his earlier case as constituting a “conviction.” (The Massachusetts RMV is required to suspend a license for three years when a driver who refuses a blood alcohol test has one prior conviction.) If the RMV had not interpreted his 1997 plea of Admission To Sufficient Facts as a conviction, Souza’s would have had his suspended for only six months, under the first-time offender rules.

Souza appealed, and the SJC ruled that the 1997 plea does not constitute a “conviction” under Melanie’s Law. Because of this, the court ruled, the Massachusetts RMV should not have categorized him as a second offender and suspended his driver’s license. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should note here that Souza’s attorney has reported that his client was acquitted last month in the 2010 case. Almost 2½ years after his license was suspended, the RMV restored it following his recent acquittal.) Recognizing the motivation of increased penalties for multiple OUI offenders , Justice Margaret Botsford wrote, “Even if we were to consider the purpose of Melanie’s Law, we are not at liberty to construe the statute in a manner that might advance its purpose but contravenes the actual language chosen by the Legislature.”

What does this mean? It means that if the Legislature wants to define a “conviction” as including a plea of Admission To Sufficient Facts or Continued Without A Finding (CWOF,) they are free to do that. But presently, that is not the law. Understandably, there are some people who sharply disagree with this ruling. The lead legislative sponsor of Melanie’s Law, State Sen. Bob Hedlund, R-Weymouth, immediately said he intends to confer with the state’s District Attorneys to change the law to define a plea of Admission To Sufficient Facts or Continued Without A Finding (CWOF,) as a “conviction.” “This creates a loophole situation, obviously, where someone benefits from having their case continued without a finding,” Hedlund said. “It’s just not something that we thought of, but I will tell you that the intent of Melanie’s Law was to provide harsher penalties for repeat offenders.”

I don’t disagree with that. But as a Norfolk County Massachusetts drunk driving lawyer, I also know that the legislatively-created plea of Admission To Sufficient Facts or Continued Without A Finding was specifically designed to provide first-time offenders of a wide variety of Massachusetts crimes with the ability to essentially admit their mistake, serve probation, prove that they can rectify their behavior, and then move on with a clean court record. If the Legislature now redefines this plea as constituting a “conviction” for all criminal offenses, across the board, it is going to take this opportunity away from tens of thousands of people who move through the Massachusetts court system every year. The end result: Almost all of them will want trials. And that’s going to cost District Attorneys’ offices across the state a lot of time and effort, and it’s going to cost the Commonwealth a lot of money.

I’m all for public safety, and for taking repeat drunk drivers off the roads. If the legal consequences of a CWOF in drunk driving cases alone need to be re-examined in light of the SJC’s ruling, I would not necessarily oppose that. But let’s not subtract citizens’ valuable legal rights, and add enormous burdens and costs to the Commonwealth, in the process. Let’s be careful about this issue is approached. Or you just may find yourself in Mr. Souza’s shoes one day, on a criminal matter that has nothing to do with drunk driving.