The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld the dismissal of a drunk driving charge against a defendant who was not properly served with a citation at the time of alleged crime. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Burnham.
On November 24, 2013, the defendant crashed his car in Easthampton. Police officers showed up at the accident scene and found the unconscious defendant in the driver’s seat. As the defendant regained consciousness, the cops helped to remove him from the car and load him into an ambulance. None of the officers made observations of the defendant on the scene to suggest he was under the influence of alcohol. However, one of the cops checked the defendant’s license status and learned it had been suspended. As a result, the officer issued the defendant with a citation charging him with operating a motor vehicle with a suspended license (OAS) and a marked lanes (civil) violation. The citation was issued the same day and mailed to the defendant. Had the defendant stayed out of trouble, he would not have faced any additional consequences for the November car accident. However, he was arrested again three months later and charged with operating under the influence of alcohol. The assistant district attorney prosecuting the new OUI case saw the still-pending OAS case and asked a superior court judge to order the hospital to produce the defendant’s medical records related to the defendant’s November accident. The judge ordered production of the records, which showed the defendant’s blood alcohol content was 0.18 percent (which is more than double the legal limit of .08). After receiving the medical records, the prosecutor instructed the police to serve a new citation to the defendant charging him with operating under the influence of alcohol (subsequent offense).
The Commonwealth indicted the defendant and he filed a motion to dismiss his case for violation of the so-called “no-fix” law. In Massachusetts, a police officer investigating a motor vehicle violation (including OUI) is required to issue a citation to the driver as soon as possible (which is usually done by handing a copy of the citation to the driver at the time of the stop). If the citation is not issued in a timely fashion, the defendant is entitled to have his case dismissed. The purpose of the law is to prevent the misuse or manipulation of citations and to provide prompt and definite notice to the driver. There are three exceptions to the prompt issuance rule: (1) where the driver could not have been stopped by the police; (2) where the police reasonably needed additional time to investigate the nature of the crime or the identity of the driver; and (3) where a judge determines there is some extenuating circumstance that justifies the delay. A superior court judge ruled the Commonwealth had not issued a timely citation and dismissed the case. The Commonwealth appealed and the Appeals Court affirmed.
The Commonwealth argued on appeal that the police needed additional time to determine the nature of the violation. But, as the Appeals Court pointed out, the Commonwealth’s investigation had ended on the date of the accident. The police did not seek to obtain the defendant’s medical records until he picked up a new case three months later. The new case did not provide previously unavailable information to the prosecution – it simply encouraged the prosecutor, on a hunch, to obtain the defendant’s hospital records. The defendant was left with the impression for three months that he would not be charged with OUI for the November accident, and accordingly he was not given adequate notice of the allegations against him. The Appeals Court also said there were no extenuating circumstances that would allow the judge to conclude the delay in issuing the complaint was appropriate.
As a result of the Commonwealth’s neglect, the defendant was spared a conviction and a mandatory minimum jail sentence in this case.