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New Melanie’s Law Ruling in Massachusetts Helps Repeat OUI Offenders Avoid Lengthy Registry License Suspensions

In a recent ruling representing a change in the interpretation of Melanie’s Law, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts has ruled that the Massachusetts Legislature did not intend that an “admission to sufficient facts” also known as a “CWOF” or “continuance without a finding of guilt” in a drunk driving case to be treated as a conviction by the Registry of Motor Vehicles when acting pursuant to G.L. c.90, § 24(1)(f)(1) to suspend an operator’s driver’s license for more that 180 days due to the driver’s refusal to take a breathalyzer test.

In so holding, the SJC decided that a person charged with operating under the influence of alcohol who receives a continuance without a finding -a routine disposition for first-time drunk driving offenders-shall not have their case counted as a first offense conviction on their record. The lawyer for the Registry of Motor Vehicles contended that a CWOF should be treated as a conviction subjecting a repeat (DWI/OUI) offenders to the additional license suspension penalties.

The case name is Souza v. Registry of Motor Vehicles and was decided on May 17, 2012 as reported in the Boston Herald. In this case, a defendant arrested and charged with OUI admitted to sufficient facts for a finding of guilty but he did not plead guilty and his case was continued without a finding and later dismissed after he successfully completed his probationary terms. The defendant was arrested again thirteen years later and he had refused to submit to a breathalyzer test. Later, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles suspended his driver’s license for three years pursuant to G.L. c.90, § 24(1)(f)(1) which directs that the RMV suspend the license for three years for a breath test refusal if the driver has been previously convicted of an OUI crime. If there is no previous conviction, the RMV suspension is for 180 days.

The case turned on the interpretation of the word “conviction.” The court looked at G.L. c. 90, § 24(1)(d) which defined conviction to include when a person had pleaded guilty or nolo contendere or was found guilty by the court. The definition did not include a continuance without a finding (CWOF). The Registry had argued that the purpose of Melanie’s Law was to increase the punishment and penalties for drunk driving in Massachusetts and therefore the term “convicted” should be interpreted to include any case where the defendant receives a continuance without a finding. The SJC disagreed and decided that adopting the RMV’s position would go against the plain meaning in the statute and what the Massachusetts Legislature intended.

The case highlights a significant change in the way RMV must treat first offender (CWOF) dispositions on OUI cases when assessing license suspensions for breath test refusals under Melanie’s Law for a subsequent offense.

If you have been charged with an OUI offense in Massachusetts, it is important to have an experienced Boston, Massachusetts OUI/DUI defense lawyer on your side who has the skills and up-to-date information necessary to help you win your OUI case and avoid unwarranted and illegal license suspension penalties imposed by the RMV. Contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today for a free criminal defense consultation on your case.