The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court unanimously reversed the Appeals Court yesterday in an important decision that reaffirms police officers must issue motor vehicle citations in a timely manner. The name of the case is Commonwealth v. O’Leary.
The defendant was driving a car on an April evening in 2014 when he lost control and crashed. He and his passenger were both injured in the accident and were taken to the hospital. A state trooper met the defendant and his passenger at the hospital and interviewed the defendant, who had glassy eyes and slurred speech. The defendant admitted to drinking a couple of beers and the trooper told him he would receive a summons in the mail charging him with operating under the influence of alcohol. As it turned out, the defendant had four prior OUI convictions and was on probation for OUI at the time of the accident. The trooper did not issue a citation to the defendant at the hospital. Instead, he wrote an investigative report and provided it to his supervisor, who approved it nine days later. The citation was then mailed to the defendant, but because the defendant’s zip code was improperly written on the envelope, the defendant did not receive the citation until five or six weeks after the accident.
The defendant moved to dismiss the case under the so-called “no-fix” statute. In Massachusetts, a police officer is required to issue a citation at the time and place of the violation unless: (1) the driver could not have been stopped; (2) more time was necessary to determine the nature of the violation or the identity of the driver; or (3) a court finds there is some circumstance that justifies the delay. A superior court judge properly found a violation of the no-fix statute and dismissed the case. The Appeals Court, in an absurd decision, reversed. Despite acknowledging that there did not appear to be a strong reason for the delay in issuing the citation, the Appeals Court overturned the superior court judge’s order of dismissal. Here, the SJC has fixed the Appeals Court’s mistake. The SJC pointed out that the trooper was with the defendant at the accident scene and the hospital, and the trooper had finished his investigation by the time he left the hospital. While the accident was serious in that the defendant and his passenger were both injured and transported to the hospital, no other cars were involved. It would be unreasonable to assume, therefore, that the defendant was placed on implicit notice that he was going to be charged with a crime. Accordingly, the superior court judge’s dismissal order was proper and the defendant will not be forced to defend the case in court.
This case illustrates the importance of good lawyering. An inexperienced attorney might not have realized the no-fix statute had been violated, which would have allowed the defendant to be prosecuted. A conviction for an OUI-Fifth carries a penalty of up to five years in state prison, and a mandatory minimum sentence of two years in jail.