The Massachusetts Appeals Court yesterday upheld a district court judge’s dismissal of a case charging operating under the influence of alcohol because the police failed to issue a citation to the defendant in a timely manner. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Werra.
On July 22, 2015, a state trooper stopped the defendant’s car in Hingham. The trooper had received a dispatch that the defendant’s car was all over the road and, sure enough, he found the defendant driving in the breakdown lane of Route 3. The trooper tried in vain to pull over the car on the highway, but the defendant wouldn’t stop until the trooper blocked her in on an exit ramp. The defendant appeared to be confused and spoke with slurred speech. She was unable to spell her name and said she had taken medication (and later clarified she had taken methadone earlier in the day). She also could not provide her date of birth to the trooper. The defendant was transported to the hospital and a search of her vehicle revealed an alcoholic beverage sitting in the center console. The trooper wrote the defendant a citation charging her with operating under the influence of drugs and negligent operation of a motor vehicle. In his report that was submitted one week later, the trooper recommended that the district attorney’s office obtain the defendant’s medical records.
On August 5, 2015, a criminal complaint issued against the defendant, charging her with OUI-drugs and negligent operation. She was arraigned on October 21, 2015, but the Commonwealth did not seek a court order for production of her medical records until the following March (more than eight months after the incident). When the records were finally delivered to the clerk’s office two months later, they established the defendant’s blood alcohol content was .25 percent, which is more than three times the legal limit. The defendant’s case was ultimately scheduled for trial on October 13, 2016. The day before the trial, the trooper wrote a new citation seeking a criminal complaint against the defendant for operating under the influence of alcohol. On October 13th, the Commonwealth dismissed the OUI-drugs case and on January 25, 2017, a new complaint charging OUI-alcohol issued against the defendant.
The defendant filed a motion to dismiss the OUI-alcohol charge, alleging the Commonwealth had violated the no-fix statute. The no-fix statute states that when the police are charging a driver with a motor vehicle infraction, the officer is required to give the driver a citation immediately unless: (1) the driver could not be stopped; (2) additional time was necessary to investigate the nature of the violation or the identity of the driver; or (3) there is some other circumstance that justifies the delay. The statute was enacted decades ago in an effort to: eliminate the practice of police officers “fixing” tickets (by voiding them); and provide prompt and definite notice to the driver as to the nature of the allegations against her. In this case, the Commonwealth argued the third exception (“some other circumstance”) justified the delay in issuing the citation. The Appeals Court wasn’t buying it. The delay resulted from the Commonwealth’s failure to request the defendant’s medical records until months after the defendant had been stopped by the trooper. Further, the defendant was not placed on adequate notice as to the nature of the charges against her, because the initial complaint alleged she was under the influence of drugs while the replacement complaint alleged she was under the influence of alcohol. Accordingly, the Commonwealth failed to abide by the no-fix statute and the OUI-alcohol charge was dismissed.