Criminal Law: A Continuance Without a Finding Does Not Count as an OUI Conviction, SJC Holds

Souza v. Registrar of Motor Vehicles et. al., Slip Op., SJC-11123 (May 17, 2012)

Summary: The SJC ruled that when Defendants admit to sufficient facts in an OUI arrest, that admission does not constitute a conviction if the OUI is latter dismissed. Thus, if a Defendant had a prior OUI dismissed and is arrested for OUI second time and convicted, that conviction will be the Defendant’s first. Consequently, the Defendant’s license will only be suspended for 180 days instead of three years, as per § 24(1)(f)(1).

Discussion: In Souza, the SJC ruled on the definition of “convicted” within § 24(1)(f)(1), as appearing in St.2005, c. 122 § 9 (known as Melanie’s Law). Turning to the plain meaning, the court determined that the term “convicted” is limited to a guilty plea, a plea of nolo contendere, a finding of guilty, or a judgment of guilty. Although the remedial purpose of Melanie’s Law is to “increase penalties for drunk drivers in the Commonwealth,” the increased penalties do not change how to construe “convicted.” Rather, the statute merely increases the time period for license suspensions. Moreover, had the Legislature intended to include an admission to sufficient facts as a guilty plea, it would have stipulated its intention in the statute.

Although not a popular decision, the Court noted that allowing defendants to admit to sufficient facts and later dismissing the charge serves the best interests of both the Commonwealth and the defendant. The defendant may admit to sufficient facts and “earn” a dismissal, thereby avoiding the negative social effects that accompany a criminal charge.

Take Away: Proponents of Melanie’s Law viewed this decision as a step backwards in the fight against drunk driving. By refusing to include admission to sufficient facts as a conviction, OUI offenders will be given an opportunity to escape punishment, possibly encouraging future offenses and threatening the lives of those on the road.