As a Massachusetts OUI defense attorney, I am reminded everyday of the devastating affect a drunk driving arrest can have on a person’s life. The person feels ashamed and helpless. Most of the time, the arrestee is a good person with no prior criminal record who made a mistake. He or she now faces the societal stigma associated with the OUI (operating under the influence charge). Even the most favorable plea deal allowed by law includes a period of license loss, significant court courts, alcohol awareness classes, travel restrictions, and legal fees. Since 2005, much harsher penalties have been imposed for those charged with OUI, as a result of the public’s commendable admonishment of drunk driving.
Unfortunately, the inevitable negative consequence has been the punishment of those charged with OUI, but are in fact Not Guilty. Even with an eventual dismissal or Not Guilty finding, the defendant suffers the trauma of an arrest and criminal prosecution (which may drag out for a year or longer), his or her name in the local newspaper, significant court and legal costs, and an automatic suspension from the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Only those who have gone through this process can truly understand how devastating it can be on one’s life. Police are usually faced with a very difficult decision whether or not to arrest a person for drunk driving. There is usually an “investigation” that lasts no more than a few minutes, based on nothing more than the officer’s initial subjective observations, before the decision to arrest is made. Fortunately, due process of law allows for the defendant to have his or her day in court, where ALL of the evidence is gathered and considered before the person can be found “Guilty” of the charge. In Massachusetts, the majority of cases that are fully examined and decided by juries or judges after evidence and facts have been gathered for months, rather than minutes, end with verdicts of “Not Guilty.”
So why are Massachusetts Police officers commended and rewarded for the raw number of OUI arrests made, without regard to the validity of the arrest, the finding of a judge or jury, and before the person has had her or her day in court?
Earlier this month, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) honored more than 75 Massachusetts police officers who combined to make over 2800 arrests in 2009. MADD honored these officers without regard to whether they had violated the constitutional rights of the accused, made inaccurate or false statements to support a criminal complaint, or whether post-arrest information, including a breathalyzer, indicated that the person was not intoxicated at all. These are all situations that also occurred in Massachusetts in 2009, and led to the aforementioned trauma, costs, and hardships for the accused. And while these individuals were forced to prove their innocence in a system that is supposed to presume the same, does it make sense to honor police officers for wrongfully putting them through it all? Doesn’t it make more sense to honor the police and Assistant District Attorneys who successfully investigated and convicted the defendants who were actually guilty?
Drunk Driving is a serious problem in Massachusetts. I applaud the legislature for increasing the penalties for those convicted of Operating Under the Influence. However, I also believe in the United States Constitution and the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. I believe in the concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” I believe in Due Process. The consequences of an OUI arrest are already significant enough for the accused. The recent commendation for arrests awarded by MADD leads me to believe that there are very few, if any, within the organization who fully understand the dynamics of drunk driving investigations, prosecutions, or the legal system in general. Less than three years ago, I was prosecuting these cases with a sense of dignity. Today, I feel that same sense of dignity as I protect the rights of those accused of operating under the influence. I believe in the system that is supposed to ensure justice for the community, the victims, and also the defendants. Honoring officers for accusing people of drunk driving is like honoring Perez Hilton for excellence in journalism any time a new headline appears on his blog. He might have some basis for the charge, but as a civilized and advanced society, we should not jump to form opinions without all the facts. In doing so, we prematurely vilify the subject of that article, and encourage more and more similar posts, without an interest in finding the truth.