Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court finds OUI law ambiguous
SJC rules person cannot be held as dangerous after 3rd OUI arrest
BOSTON — Defendants charged, but not yet convicted, with third offense OUI can no longer be held without bail as dangerous, according to a new ruling by the state's Supreme Judicial Court.
The question arose from the case of a Pittsfield man, Timothy O. Dayton, who had incurred two charges of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol in 2015 — one on Feb. 4, the other on Sept. 11. At the time, Dayton had two previous OUI convictions — one from 1987, the other from 1989.
In the February case, a local probation officer spotted Dayton's truck operating erratically and strike the median at the corner of East Lenox Road and Williams Street before pulling in to the Williams Street Plaza.
He was arrested and charged with OUI third offense and held without bail for 60 days as dangerous in that incident. At that time, Dayton had pending OUI charges from August 2014, but he was eventually found not guilty in that case, said his attorney, Ryan Smith.
Several months later, while the February case still was pending, Dayton hit the side of a Lenox Police cruiser after freeing his truck from a ditch on New Lenox Road.
He also was charged with OUI third offense, since he had yet to be convicted in the February case. Judge John Agostini wanted to keep him locked up in that case as well.
"He's going to kill somebody," he said.
Smith argued the symptoms Dayton displayed at the scene of both of the incidents were due to a documented seizure disorder and not from intoxication. He said those symptoms include vertigo-like conditions and confusion.
But Agostini said it was irrelevant whether the crashes were caused by alcohol or improper treatment of his medical conditions.
"There's no way to stop him," he said before ordering Dayton held without bail pending a dangerousness hearing.
He eventually pleaded guilty to all of his charges in March 2016 and was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in jail.
Throughout the early stages of Dayton's case, Smith had raised questions over the ambiguity in the statute and whether the state could move to have a defendant held as dangerous with only a third offense OUI charge and not a conviction.
The question was sent to the Appeals Court in November 2015 and was taken up in April 2016, Smith said. It was then sent up to the Supreme Judicial Court in October.
The majority opinion of the court noted the lack of clarity of the original language in the statute, which said the state could seek a dangerousness hearing for defendants "arrested and charged with ... a third or subsequent conviction" for OUI.
"The OUI clause ... is ambiguous," part of the decision reads. "Even setting aside the significant syntactical defects that arise when the OUI clause is read in the entire context... we do not know what it means to be 'arrested and charged with' a 'conviction.' "
"Being 'arrested' and 'charged' with a crime is wholly distinct from a 'conviction' for that crime," the decision reads.
"When the language of a criminal statute plausibly can be found ambiguous, the rule of lenity requires that the defendant receive the benefit of the ambiguity," according to the decision.
"We are very pleased the justices agreed with us," Smith said.
Judge David A. Lowy, who wrote a dissenting opinion, didn't find the same level of ambiguity in the language as did his colleagues.
"I believe it is apparent that the Legislature intended to enable the commonwealth to seek pretrial detention for individuals who were 'arrested and charged with' what could be their third OUI conviction," he wrote.
Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.