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Commonwealth v. Richards

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

September 5, 2018

COMMONWEALTH
v.
ERIC A. RICHARDS.

          Heard: May 10, 2018.

         Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on September 26, 2017. The case was reported by Lowy, J.

          Robert J. Bender, Assistant District Attorney (Timothy Ferriter, Assistant District Attorney, also present) for the Commonwealth.

          Steven M. Vaillancourt (Andrew Sprow also present) for the defendant.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Lenk, Gaziano, Lowy, Budd, Cypher, & Kafker, JJ.

          KAFKER, J.

         In 2010, the defendant's driver's license was suspended for his refusal to consent to a breathalyzer after his arrest for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol (OUI). Because the defendant had three prior convictions of OUI when he refused the breathalyzer, his license was subject to a lifetime suspension. The defendant was later found not guilty of the 2010 OUI charge, and he immediately moved to have his license restored, pursuant to G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (f) (1). His motion was denied. The defendant made three subsequent motions for restoration of his license in 2011, 2015, and 2017. A judge in the District Court granted the defendant's 2017 motion for restoration of his license.

         The Commonwealth filed a petition for relief with the single justice, pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3, arguing that the defendant's license could not be restored under the statute because he was entitled only to an "immediate" hearing on restoration of his license, not one held seven years later, and that allowance of the motion for the reasons stated by the judge would essentially amount to an unconstitutional reformulation of the statute. The single justice reserved and reported the case to the full court. Because the plain language of the statute and the legislative history preclude the relief requested, we reverse.

         1. Background.

         a. Statutory scheme.

         "In Massachusetts, one's right to operate a motor vehicle is a privilege voluntarily granted. . . . Continued possession of this privilege is conditioned on obedience to the Legislature's comprehensive regulatory scheme aimed at regulating the motorways and keeping them safe." Luk v. Commonwealth, 421 Mass. 415, 423 (1995). Toward this end, an individual who drives on a public road is "deemed to have consented to submit to a chemical test or analysis of his breath or blood in the event that he is arrested for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor." G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (f) (1) . Failing or refusing to take such a test results in license suspension. Id. Such "suspension serves to deter persons from driving while intoxicated; it effectuates the Commonwealth's interest in obtaining reliable and relevant evidence by inducing suspected drunk drivers to take the breath test; and it promotes safety on the highways by summary removal of dangerous drivers." Luk, supra at 425. See Mackey v. Montrym, 443 U.S. 1, 18 (1979) (same).

         A comparison of the suspensions imposed on, and remedies available to, drivers who take the breathalyzer test and those who refuse it is informative. An individual who fails the breathalyzer and is subsequently convicted of OUI faces significant suspension consequences. See G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (c). Individuals with no prior OUI convictions who are subsequently convicted of OUI face a one-year suspension of their license. G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (c) (1). Individuals with one prior OUI conviction face a two-year suspension. G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (c) (2). Individuals with two prior OUI convictions face an eight-year suspension. G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (c) (3). Individuals with three prior OUI convictions face a ten-year suspension. G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (c) (3 ¾). Individuals with four prior OUI convictions face a lifetime suspension. G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (c) (3 ¾). When an individual's license is suspended pursuant to § 24 (1) (c), the statute permits the individual to apply for issuance of a limited license on the ground of hardship. The statute does not, however, permit individuals subject to a lifetime suspension to seek such a hardship license. See G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (c) (3 ¾).

         An individual who refuses to take the breathalyzer faces suspension consequences irrespective of whether he or she is subsequently convicted of OUI. See G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (f) (1) . Individuals with no prior OUI convictions who refuse to take the test face a 180-day suspension of their license. Id. Individuals with one prior OUI conviction face a three-year suspension. Id. Individuals with two prior OUI convictions face a five-year suspension. Id. Individuals with three prior OUI convictions face a lifetime suspension. Id. Unlike nonlifetime suspensions imposed pursuant to § 24 (1) (c), if an individual's license is suspended for refusing to take the breathalyzer, the individual is not permitted to apply for a hardship license. See G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (f) (1).[1]

         The statute does, however, provide an avenue for relief for individuals who refuse to take the test but are subsequently acquitted of OUI. See G. L. c. 90, § 24 (1) (f) (1). The statute provides:

"the defendant may immediately, upon the entry of a not guilty finding or dismissal of all charges under this section, . . . and in the absence of any other alcohol related charges pending against said defendant, apply for and be immediately granted a hearing before the court which took final action on the charges for the purpose of requesting the restoration of said license. At said hearing, there shall be a rebuttable presumption that said license be restored, unless the commonwealth shall establish, by a fair preponderance of the evidence, that restoration of said ...

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