Earlier this month, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a written opinion in a case involving a Massachusetts OUI arrest in which the defendant also had an open container of alcohol in the car. The case required the court to determine if the state’s prohibition on driving with an open container of alcohol constituted a criminal offense or if it was considered correctly a civil motor vehicle infraction. Ultimately, the court found that the open container statute was an “automobile law violation,” making it a civil motor vehicle infraction.
According to the court’s opinion, police pulled the defendant over under suspicion of driving under the influence. When police approached the defendant’s vehicle, they saw an open container of alcohol. Police charged the defendant with OUI and possessing an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle. At trial, the jury found the defendant not guilty of OUI but guilty of the open container violation. The defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that the open container violation was not a criminal offense, and that it should have been resolved through a ticket.
The fundamental question posed to the court was whether the open container statute defined a criminal offense or a traffic violation. The court’s framework for answering the question was fairly sophisticated. First, the court noted that a “civil motor vehicle infraction” is one involving an “automobile law violation” that cannot result in imprisonment. The court then acknowledged that the open container statute did not provide for the possibility of imprisonment. Thus, the court’s next step was to determine if an open container violation was properly considered an “automobile law violation.”
In wrestling with this issue, the court looked both to the language of the open container statute as well as the legislative intent in passing the law. The court noted that open container laws were initially enacted to reduce instances of drunk driving. Thus, the statute related to the safe operation of a motor vehicle. For this reason, the court found that the open container law was an “automobile law violation,” making it a civil infraction.
In coming to this conclusion, the court overruled a previously decided case that would have seemingly required an alternate result. In that case, the court had held that “automobile law violations must necessarily and exclusively encompass the operation or control of a motor vehicle.” However, when reviewing this statement, the court noted that such an interpretation could lead to absurd results when applied to specific situations. Thus, the court overruled that interpretation, favoring the interpretation that defines an automobile violation as one that relates to the safe operation of a motor vehicle.
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