The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today reversed a Boston Municipal Court judge’s decision to reinstate a defendant’s driver’s license seven years after his acquittal for operating under the influence of alcohol (fourth offense). The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Richards.
By the time the defendant was arrested for OUI in 2010, he already had three prior convictions. After his arrest, he was given the opportunity to take the Breathalyzer, and he declined. As a result of his refusal to take the Breathalyzer (and his three prior convictions), the defendant had his license suspended for the rest of his life. The length of the license suspension was mandated by Melanie’s law, which was enacted by the Legislature in 2005 and imposed harsher sentences for OUI convictions and harsher license suspensions for suspected drunk drivers who refused to take the Breathalyzer. A defendant who is convicted of a first-offense OUI typically receives a 45-day license suspension, but he can apply for a hardship license three days after the sentence is imposed. A defendant who has no prior history of OUI convictions but who refuses the Breathalyzer will immediately have his license suspended for six months (with no right to apply for a hardship license) and, if he is found guilty, will suffer an additional 45-day suspension as punishment for the conviction. The Breathalyzer refusal suspensions are intended to constitute serious penalties, because the Legislature wanted to provide OUI suspects with a strong incentive to take the Breathalyzer. People who are arrested for OUI and refuse the Breathalyzer face longer license suspensions if they have been previously convicted of OUI.
There is a possibility for some defendants who refused the Breathalyzer to have their suspension periods cut short. If the defendant goes to trial and is found not guilty, he has the right to immediately ask the judge who presided over the trial to reinstate his license. The judge is required to return the defendant’s license unless the prosecutor proves by a preponderance of the evidence (more likely than not) that restoration of the license would likely endanger public safety. Judges hearing these types of motions to restore acquitted defendants’ licenses will consider the facts that led to the OUI arrests, the defendants’ driving histories, and whether the defendants have prior OUI convictions. In this case, the trial judge concluded that restoring the defendant’s license would likely endanger public safety and declined to reinstate it. The defendant renewed his motion three times and on his third try (seven years after his acquittal), the judge (who was not the trial judge) agreed to return the defendant’s license. The Commonwealth appealed, arguing that the defendant was entitled to request the return of his license only once – immediately following the trial in front of the trial judge. The Supreme Judicial Court agreed, pointing out that the plain language of the statute is unambiguous. The Court further contrasted the manner in which the statute treats suspensions that result from convictions (which are typically eligible for hardship consideration) with suspensions that result from Breathalyzer refusals (which cannot be subject to hardship consideration). The judge who returned the license in this case essentially ordered an illegal hardship license to be provided to the defendant.
As a result of the Court’s decision, the defendant will suffer a lifetime license loss.