One year ago, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team published several articles that completely misled the public about OUI conviction rates in Massachusetts. It tried to generate outrage by reporting certain conviction statistics without fully investigating how OUI cases are actually prosecuted in Massachusetts. In response to the article, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) of Massachusetts appointed R.J. Cinguegrana as special counsel to investigate OUI statistics in Massachusetts. Cinguegrana and his team evaluated data of nearly 57,000 OUI cases over a four year period. This much more comprehensive, thorough, and unbiased investigation and subsequent report, which was actually done by highly experienced legal professionals, reveals the truth about how OUI cases are prosecuted and adjudicated in Massachusetts.
Last year’s Globe article suggested that because jury-waived trials in front of a single justice result in acquittals 85-90% of the time, whereas jury trials result in acquittals nearly 30% less-often, the judges are too lenient on defendants. There is a very simple explanation for this disparity: the type of case in which criminal defense lawyers advise their clients to waive a jury are usually different from the type of case in which the defendant is advised to put his fate in the hands of his peers. In my experience, when the defense attorney’s theory of a case rests mainly on an issue of law rather than particular facts of the case, or where the evidence of one element of the offense is so weak that it’s readily recognizable to any lawyer or judge, the attorney will advise his client to waive a jury. Thus, the judges tend to hear weaker cases, resulting in a higher acquittal rate.
In Massachusetts, if you are charged with an OUI, you can rest assured that the prosecution will not be willing to dismiss your case, no matter how weak it may be. The main reason for this practice is that District Attorneys are elected officials, and they want to appear tough on drunk driving. They would rather take a very weak case to trial and lose than dismiss the charge, even when doing so is warranted. This way, they, along with the Boston Globe’s spotlight team, can blame the judges for a high acquittal rate, and still appear to be prosecuting these cases to the fullest extent of the law. With weak evidence of guilt, your attorney may file motions to exclude evidence without which the prosecution is UNABLE to legally go forward with the case. However, in most cases, you will have to go to trial with the hopes that a judge or jury finds you “Not Guilty.” This is a very different practice from other states, where OUI charges are often dismissed or amended to a less serious offense if the case is weak. In New Hampshire, for example, weaker OUI cases are routinely amended to the charge of “Reckless Driving” as part of a plea bargain. The absence of such a practice in Massachusetts forces you to hire an attorney to defend the case all the way through trial, even when the prosecutor knows that a “Not Guilty” verdict is almost certain.
Mark Leahy, president of the Massachusetts Police Chiefs association was quoted as saying, “We absolutely are not wrong 85 and 90 percent of the time. There are always going to be some lousy cases, but it doesn’t begin to approach a majority.” I 100% agree with Chief Leahy. The police are not wrong in making an arrest 85- 90% of the time. In fact, far from that. That’s why 77% of the time, the case is resolved of adversely for the defendant, with either an admission to the offense of OUI as part of a plea, or a Guilty finding after trial, according to Cinguegrana’s report. This number is actually consistent with the national average of 80.5%. Only 23% of OUI cases in Massachusetts result in either a dismissal or a Not Guilty verdict. And even of those 23% of cases with a favorable result for the defendant, the arrest was, in most cases, a good arrest. In order to arrest a person for OUI, the police only need probable cause to believe that the person committed the offense. In order to convict, the prosecution must prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the person is guilty of each element of the offense. Thus, a case in which the police made a legitimate arrest might still not be strong enough for the prosecution to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the person is guilty.