Massachusetts Drunk Driving Loophole May Be Closed By Legislature

Readers of my blog will recall that I recently ran a Masssachusetts OUI/DUI post about Melanie’s Law, which was a new drunk driving law that the Massachusetts Legislature enacted in 2005. It was named after Melanie Powell of Marshfield. She was a 13-year-old who was killed by a repeat drunk driver offender when she crossed a street in 2003. The point of the law was to establish increasing penalties for persons convicted of repeat drunk driving offenses in Massachusetts.

Right now, the Massachusetts Attorney General and members of the Massachusetts Legislature are trying to close a loophole in that drunken-driving law, which allows some drivers convicted of Massachusetts OUI/DUI to avoid some of the increasing penalties that the law was written to impose.

Last Thursday this loophole was brought to the public’s attention, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) ruled that drivers accused of drunk driving who previously entered pleas in their cases known as an “Admission To Sufficient Facts,” or “Continued Without A Finding” – are not subject to the stiffer penalties imposed by Melanie’s Law. To learn what the a plea of an “Admission To Sufficient Facts,” or “Continued Without A Finding” mean legally, read my previous post of a few days ago by clicking here.

Many legal and legislative leaders over the past few days, including the Attorney General and essentially all of the state’s District Attorneys, have publicly decried the SJC’s ruling, and called for the legislature to amend the Massachusetts drunk driving statute to re-define a plea of “Admission To Sufficient Facts,” or “Continued Without A Finding” – in Massachusetts OUI/DUI cases only – so that the plea will constitute a “conviction” for purposes of imposing stiffer penalties on repeat drunk drivers. According to the Thursday ruling, cases that were Continued Without A Finding do NOT count as a “conviction” under the current civil law. What this means is that the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles cannot use these cases as a basis for increasing the civil penalties for repeat drunken driving offenses.

What Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley and legislative leaders want to do is to broaden the law’s definition of “conviction” to include a plea of Continued Without A Finding in cases involving drunk driving defendants. If this proposal is passed by the legislature, that means that when someone is charged as a first-time OUI offender, and he/she enters a plea of Continued Without A Finding, that plea will count as a conviction. The consequence of that? If he or she re-offends in the future, that person will face much stiffer penalties than if this plea remained as not constituting a conviction.

As a Boston/Dedham drunk driving attorney, I believe that it’s important to recognize the concept that when a person is arrested for drunk driving, and that person chooses to agree to a plea of Continued Without A Finding, that that person is, in essence, acknoweldging that the Commonwealth has sufficient evidence to secure a conviction, if the case went to trial. I would not agree with any legislative proposal to transform ALL pleas of Continued Without A Finding, in ALL cases, into criminal convictions. If this form of plea were to be expanded to include all criminal offenses, in my view that would be unjust and unwise. Why? Because this form of plea was legislatively created to provide first-time offenders of various crimes, to acknowledge they had committed wrongdoing, but to at the same time provide them a “second chance” to serve a term of probation, stay on the “straight and narrow,” and reform their lives without forever carrying the legal and social stigma of a criminal conviction.

But, as it pertains to Massachusetts drunk driving charges only, I support this proposed change. By closing the loophole for Massachusetts drunk driving offenses, it takes repeat drunk driving offenders off the roads for a significant period of time. And that’s in everyone’s best interests. Don’t be surprised that a Norfolk County Massachusetts defense lawyer would take this position. As a criminal defense lawyer, I fight tooth and nail for my clients’ legal rights, and my track record speaks to my success. But I also know justice when I see it, and this proposal is not unjust in my view, given that innocent lives can often be at stake. This proposal may not be the convenient thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.

The legislature is scheduled to vote on this matter this coming Wednesday. I’ll keep my readers posted.