Massachusetts DUI defense lawyer James M. Lynch reviews the recent Supreme Judicial Court decision creating a “loophole” in Melanie’s Law.
On May 17, 2012, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court narrowed the power of the Registry of Motor Vehicles to administratively suspend the driver’s licenses of repeat offenders under the 2005 omnibus statute known as “Melanie’s Law”. In an opinion written by Judge Margot Botsford, the SJC addressed the interpretation of the word “convicted” as it relates to previously convicted drunk driving offenders in the case of Paul Souza vs. Registrar of Motor Vehicles. Specifically, since the adoption of “Melanie’s Law” in 2005, the RMV has been treating as prior convictions cases where offenders had previously admitted to sufficient facts in dispositions resulting in continuances without a finding (CWOF’s) in assessing license suspensions for failure to submit to breathalyzer tests in subsequent cases. For example, a first time offender under the statute (which was amended in 2010) would receive a 180-day suspension for breathalyzer refusals where as an offender who had been previously “convicted” under the statute would receive a 3-year suspension for the same refusal. Offenders who have been “convicted” two or more times receive far more lengthy suspensions under the law (5 years for offenders with 2 prior convictions and lifetime suspensions for offenders with 3 or more convictions).
The section of the OUI statute dealing with offender breathalyzer/blood/chemical testing refusals (G.L.c. 90, §24(1)(f)(1), however, does not define the word “convicted” as it is used in that statute (“previously convicted of”) but it is defined in G.L.c.90, §24(1)(d)(1) which states:
A person shall be deemed to have been convicted if he pleaded guilty or nolo contendere or was found or adjudged guilty…
The SJC noted that “[t]he definition makes no mention of an admission to sufficient facts; an assignment to an alcohol education, treatment, or rehabilitation program (program assignment); or a continuance without a finding (CWOF).” The Court was not persuaded by the RMV Board of Appeals argument that the plaintiff’s 1997 CWOF should be treated as a prior conviction “in light of the remedial purpose of Melanie’s Law, namely, ‘to increase penalties for drunk drivers in the Commonwealth’. The Court countered that if the Legislature wanted to include admissions to sufficient facts and CWOF’s within the ambit of its definition of “conviction”, it could have done so but did not.
What makes the SJC’s ruling a narrow one is that it deals only with suspensions for breathalyzer, blood and chemical test refusals. It does not deal with the sentencing penalties for OUI convictions themselves after a finding of guilty. Those parts of the statute dealing with second and subsequent offenses also don’t define “[previously] convicted of” but they do include offenders who have been previously “assigned to an alcohol or controlled substance education, treatment or rehabilitation program” and include such offenders in how a sentencing judge must determine who is to be considered a second and subsequent offender.
The SJC’s Souza ruling may also have a broad impact on those repeat offenders who had previously appealed their suspensions but whose appeals were denied because they were deemed to have had “prior convictions” as a result of admissions to sufficient facts or CWOF’s. Lastly, it is likely that the Legislature will amend the statute to include a broader definition of the “[previously] convicted of” at some point in the near future.
About the Author: James M. Lynch is a Massachusetts lawyer for Lynch & Owens, located in Hingham, Massachusetts, whose practice areas include DUI defense, divorce and personal injury.
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