As discussed in previous blog posts, the Boston Globe recently published a series of OUI-related articles in a spotlight series, the objectivity of which is questionable at best. In the wake of the spotlight series, the Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court in Massachusetts, announced that it would study the acquittal rate in Massachusetts drunk-driving bench trials, a rate which the Globe reported was more than 80 percent. Jack Cinquegrana, a former Suffolk County and federal prosecutor, is leading the inquiry.
The justices, in a prepared statement, said, "Public confidence in the judiciary depends on its belief in the integrity of the judicial process, judges, and their decisions...To preserve the public's trust and confidence, the courts must be, and must appear to be, fair and impartial in all cases,'' according to the Globe.
While this Massachusetts OUI/DUI/drunk-driving attorney fully respects the decisions of our Commonwealth's highest court, the question that arises is: How can one have confidence in the integrity of our judicial process when an apparently politically-driven and editorialized newspaper article can potentially create an impact on the judiciary, which is supposed to be isolated from political influence and public opinion? As a Massachusetts district court judge has noted, according to the Globe, the low conviction rate in Massachusetts is due to the fact that prosecutors, sensitive to public opinion in our Commonwealth, are reluctant to dismiss OUI cases that lack evidence. While some have called for a judicial conduct board investigation, it seems that the high OUI acquittal rates in Massachusetts bench trials may well be attributable to the integrity of our judges, who are not susceptible to public prejudice or political pressures.
Cinquegrana has been asked to compare the rate of acquittals in Massachusetts jury-waived OUI trials to the United States average, according to the Globe. This is another troubling piece of information. Our Massachusetts judges should, and must, be free to make impartial decisions, case by case, without national statistics hanging over their heads. National averages have little to do with Massachusetts OUI cases, and nationwide acquittal statistics are meaningless without inquiry into police presence and tendencies, population, prosecutorial discretion, and many other factors. Here is something else to consider. OUI laws vary from state to state. Some jurisdictions mandate the taking of a breathalyzer test. Others permit the police to get a Search Warrant to take blood from an OUI suspect. In these states you might find criminal defense lawyers strongly advising their clients, those who want a trial, to go jury waived should they desire an exercise of their constitutional right to a trial. Why? Because some judges punish more severely when defendants "waste" judicial resources by electing a jury trial for cases that are strong for the prosecution. A state by state comparison of acquittal rates is meaningless absent an understanding of the differences in drunk driving laws from state to state.
The SJC has recognized the "delicate nature of this preliminary inquiry," noting that "[o]ur system depends on judges being able to decide a case fairly but independently, without fear or favor," according to the Globe. Time will tell whether the Massachusetts judiciary will yield to media bullying out of fear or hope for public favor. In the meantime, it is increasingly important to speak with an experienced Massachusetts OUI lawyer if you find yourself accused of drunk driving in our state. Our office has that expertise.