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On the road again: Drunken drivers get their keys back
Court approves shorter suspension when a decade separates offenses
Some two-time drunken drivers can skirt a two-year license suspension because of ambiguity in the state law, the state's highest court ruled yesterday.
The Supreme Judicial Court said that a two-year suspension ordered for Patrick J. Cahill after a 2003 drunken driving arrest in Haverhill must be reduced to no more than 90 days, in part because more than a decade had passed since a prior conviction.
The decision could affect thousands of people across the state, one expert said.
Justices cited a 2002 amendment to state law that allows people with more than 10 years between their first and second convictions to request a sentence usually reserved for first-time offenders.
The sentence, which is aimed at preventing repeat drunken driving through education and counseling, includes probation and enrollment in an alcohol awareness program. It also mandates a loss of license for 45 to 90 days.
Another, older part of the drunken driving law, requires a two-year license suspension for all second-time offenders.
Those conflicting guidelines meant some judges were yanking defendants' licenses for two years, and others were limiting the punishment to 90 days, said Randy Chapman, an attorney who represents Cahill.
The justices found that "such ambiguity must be resolved in favor of the defendant" and ordered that the 90-day maximum suspension apply.
"Lawyers tell us it affects literally thousands of people," said David Yas, editor of Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly. "A lot of people have these old convictions lingering on their record and ... the question had lingered as to whether or not those old convictions required a two-year suspension."
Until recently, drunken driving convictions more than a decade old could not be considered at all.
A much-touted revision of state law in 2002 changed that, requiring all past convictions to be considered during sentencing, regardless of when they occurred.
But defense lawyers said lawmakers clearly intended to give two-time offenders some slack if they had clean records for at least a decade between convictions. The Legislature simply neglected to update all sections of the law to reflect that, the lawyers said.
"The law is being interpreted in the way it was meant to be interpreted," said Russ Matson, a defense lawyer who specializes in drunken driving cases.
Matson, who lives and practices in Braintree, said he has two clients who will get their licenses back quicker because of the decision, including one woman who was first convicted two decades ago when in her 20s.
"She stayed out of trouble for all that time," he said. "It's not really fair to hold indiscretions that happened in college against somebody."
Barbara Harrington, executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said she, too, expected the law would be interpreted this way when it was amended in 2002.
She said this "little wrinkle" is minor when compared to other improvements the amendments provided, including a greater ability to send repeat offenders to jail.
"Whether someone gets 90 days or two years is not the most important thing to us," she said. "What's important is that they're getting convicted when they're caught and the penalties appropriately increase.
"It's a work in progress," she said of the law. "The improvements that have been made are very effective, but it's hardly a model law. Is there room for more improvement? Absolutely."
Chapman, the attorney for Cahill, said the court's ruling does not entirely eliminate a judge's ability to suspend someone's license for more than 90 days.
Judges don't have to approve defendants' requests to participate in the punishment program that promotes education. But if they do, they must stick to the sentencing guidelines, including the 90-day cap on the license suspension, he said.
Karen Eschbacher may be reached by clicking here.
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