Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Limits Reach of OUI License Suspension Penalty

In an important decision delivered yesterday, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court limited the reach of a law that imposes a mandatory minimum jail sentence on a specific type of license suspension crime.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Nascimento

Defendants who are found guilty of operating under the influence of alcohol (or who plead guilty or admit to sufficient facts to warrant a conviction) have their driver’s licenses suspended.  The typical license suspension for a first-offense OUI disposition is between 45 and 90 days, but the Registry of Motor Vehicles ordinarily grants defendants hardship licenses within three days of the imposition of the sentence.  A typical license suspension for an OUI-second offense is two years (with a hardship license available after one year).  People who are tempted to drive while their licenses are suspended for an OUI disposition are taking a huge risk – the crime of operating after suspension for OUI carries a mandatory minimum 60 days in jail.  The sentence cannot be suspended and the judge has no discretion to do anything other than send the defendant to jail for 60 days.

In this case, the defendant was stopped by a state trooper in January of 2016 after allegedly committing several marked lanes violations.  The defendant reportedly had glassy and bloodshot eyes, and his speech was slurred.  After the trooper concluded the defendant failed a series of field sobriety tests, he was arrested.  At the barracks, the defendant agreed to take the Breathalyzer test and he blew a .13, which is considerably higher than the legal limit of .08.  Massachusetts law requires the Registry of Motor Vehicles to immediately suspend a driver’s license for 30 days for failing the Breathalyzer, and the suspension was ordered in this case.  (If a driver refuses to take the Breathalyzer, the Registry of Motor Vehicles will immediately suspend his license for at least six months – the suspension is longer for a refusal because law enforcement wants to give motorists an incentive to take the Breathalyzer.)   Less than 30 days after the imposition of the license suspension, the defendant was caught driving.  He admitted he knew his license had been suspended and he was arrested.  Instead of being charged with operating with a suspended license, the defendant was charged with the enhanced offense of operating with a suspended license following an OUI disposition.  The defendant moved to dismiss so much of the complaint as alleged his license was suspended for an OUI disposition and a Boston Municipal Court judge allowed his motion.  The Suffolk District Attorney’s Office appealed.

In what might be the easiest case it will ever decide, the Supreme Judicial Court examined the plain language of the statute and ruled that the defendant cannot be charged with operating with a suspended license following an OUI disposition when the OUI case has not yet been disposed.  The Court concluded the statute clearly applies only to defendants who have been found guilty of, or admitted to sufficient facts to warrant a guilty finding of, operating under the influence.  Since that has not yet happened in this case, the defendant may not be prosecuted under the more serious statute that mandates a 60-day jail sentence.