In recent months there has been a lot of talk regarding Massachusetts drunk driving bench trials. The Boston Globe did a three part series on how certain judges have an incredible rate of not guilty verdicts. As a result of the Boston Globe spot light, the Supreme Judicial Court the highest court of in Massachusetts has started an investigation. The Boston Globe focused their attention on the bench trial portion of the drunk driving process, but it is far from the entire story. Drunk driving cases tend to be a very emotional topic. In fact, drunk driving laws have become stricter over time and drunk driving arrests are on the increase.
The reason the spot light doesn’t tell the entire story is because it doesn’t say what type of people are actually being arrested. Sure, there are many people that get arrested for and OUI that really shouldn’t have been driving. Most OUI cases plead out before ever going to either a bench trial or a jury trial. If a person is clearly drunk or has a blood alcohol level above the legal limit the cases generally plead before trial. The cases that tend to go to trial are that ones that are highly questionable.
Many OUI cases should go to trial because police are arresting more and more people for OUIs. Many police stations are getting grants for OUI arrests or to set up sobriety check points. As you may know, police officers get paid for overtime work. They can do detail jobs at a bar or direct traffic at a construction site. Police are very protective over their overtime as it increases the amount of money they can bring home. There was a fight a few years ago as Governor Patrick wanted to and ended up replacing some police officers with flag men. Well grant money is different. The money comes in from a grant and the police are paid. In order to justify the grant, police need to make OUI arrests.
There are even awards given out to police officers that make the most OUI arrests. One officer boasted on the stand that he made over 300 OUI arrests a year. Seeing that the officer didn’t work every day, the officer was on average making 1 or more OUI arrest a day. There are certainly a portion of police that arrests people for the overtime and others for awards, but most police want to do the right thing. The problem is no police officer wants to let someone go for an OUI just to have the person crash or for the media to find out. Police officers can be suspended if not terminated if they let a suspected drunk driver go and later the person gets into a major accident. I have heard several good police officers say they won’t risk their jobs and will arrest anyone they pull over if they smell alcohol.
To make matters worse, prosecutors also don’t want to dismiss cases. Even in cases where the evidence doesn’t support an OUI case. Prosecutors are so concerned with the media and public opinion that they will continue to prosecute a case no matter the evidence. Even if the defendant had a breathalyzer reading that was under the legal limit, the defendant will still be charged and prosecuted. I have seen cases where the defendant blew a .05 and the case still went to trial.
The Boston Globe spotlight tells one part of the process, but it is far from the entire story. In Massachusetts, we have police officers so concerned about other things that they will arrest anyone that even smells of alcohol. Then we have prosecutors so concerned about public opinion that they continue to fight cases even if it lacks evidence. It is not to say that there are not defendants that are clearly guilty, but the majority if not all of those cases tend to plead out prior to trial. The cases that go to trial should be tried because police are arresting everyone just in case and prosecutors continue to fight cases they know have a lack of evidence. In every criminal case, the prosecutor has the burden to prove each case beyond a reasonable doubt. Because of the lack of evidence in many OUI cases, the prosecutor isn’t able to meet this high burden. As a result, many cases that goes to trial and justice demands that judges rule for the defendant. It may not be popular and the media will attack these judges relentlessly, but in many cases, it is right.