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Mass Supreme Court Makes Major Ruling on Drunk Driving Cases

A lawsuit filed after a drunk driving accident in Boston is a civil action where defendant may be held liable and the plaintiff awarded monetary damages. The same is not true in a criminal action.  However, unlike with many other Boston personal injuries, the tortious act in question is also illegal, so the defendant will likely be facing one or more criminal charges in a separate case.

Boston drunk driving crashEven though the criminal case and civil drunk driving lawsuit are separate cases, the criminal case can have major effects on the civil personal injury case.  The way this typically works is that following a Boston drunk driving crash, the police will be called to investigate, and if they suspect the at-fault driver was operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol (OUI), the officer will conduct a drunk driving investigation consistent with the officer’s training and experience and the DWI Detection guidelines established by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which have been adopted by law enforcement agencies around the nation.

A Criminal Drunk Driving Case Can Affect Boston Drunk Driving Crash Lawsuit

As our Boston drunk driving accident attorneys can explain, the defendant has an absolute right to remain silent pursuant to the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article Fourteen of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights so this means a defendant cannot be required to answer allegations in a civil complaint or compelled to respond to discovery requests until the criminal case is closed.  It does not matter whether the defendant was acquitted or found guilty since either result will end the privilege against self-incrimination since a criminal case is no longer pending.

It is also important to understand that it doesn’t mean that if a defendant is acquitted of a crime or the case is otherwise dismissed, the defendant cannot still be held liable in a civil action.  In a criminal action there is a higher burden of proof.  The prosecution must prove defendant’s guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.  Under the case law in Massachusetts, this doesn’t there must no doubt whatsoever, and there is no mathematical formula as to what reasonable doubt means, but jurors must know to a moral certainty that defendant is guilty before casting a vote to convict.

On the other hand, in a civil case, plaintiff must prove defendant is more likely than not to have committed the tortious conduct, so there is a technically a mathematical formula meaning the jury must believe defendant is more than  50 percent likely to have been driving drunk.  In practice however, most jurors need a lot more convincing that the bare minimum 51 percent so it is best for plaintiffs to seek a consultation with an experienced drunk driving accident lawyer who actually takes cases to trial and fight hard for plaintiffs’ rights to a full and appropriate financial compensation.

New Criminal Rules in Massachusetts Drunk Driving Cases

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), which is state’s highest court, recently ruled on a case involving the issue of the whether the jury could learn a defendant refused to take a breath alcohol test according to the Boston Globe.  In most jurisdictions, prosecutors can read the implied consent for and have officers testify the suspect refused to submit to breath, blood, or urine testing. The jury is then instructed they can draw whatever inference they wish from this.  Massachusetts however, is more protective of defendant’s rights, so the jury is not to learn the defendant refused to take the test.  This is based upon the higher level of protections in the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights than the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

While both documents were largely drafted by John Adams, who is after all a Boston lawyer who first gained notoriety for defending the British Redcoats in their trial following the Boston Massacre, the U.S. Constitution was altered before being ratified. Under the law of the Commonwealth, saying you will not take the test is considered privileged as it could be construed as an admission of guilt.  However, based on a 15-year-old legal doctrine, the court is allowed to instruct jurors they should not make any inference about the absence of a breath test result in the case.  Following a conviction, the defendant appealed arguing this basically draws  jurors’ attention to the fact there is no breath test score and that defeats the purpose of the privilege against self-incrimination.

In this case, in a divided opinion, the court agreed this was a potential violation of the defendant’s rights so it should be the defendant’s choice whether that instruction is given.  Under the now current law, the judge cannot give that jury instruction absent consent of the defendant.  There may be reasons why a defendant would want to have the jury hear that, but it would seem that it would not happen all that often. DUI criminal defense attorneys often like to argue that a lack of so-called scientific evidence means the defendant is not guilty.

This is sometimes known as the CSI effect, named after the popular procedural drama where jurors have come to expect police to take DNA samples and fingerprints and do all of the things we see on these TV shows.  This frustrates prosecutors in Boston drunk driving accident cases because the police do not typically do any of things as there is no a need to do so, and even if there was, it would cost money and take months do to.  On these TV shows they can get the results of a DNA sample in a matter of hours.  While that is possible in a very high profile case such as the one following the Boston Marathon bombing, in the average case, it takes many months to get any results back from the state lab.  Even a toxicology test will take no less than 90 days due to the lack of resources.

Again, it is important to understand that even if these methods result in a case being dismissed or a defendant being acquitted at trial, there can still a very good chance of a successful result in a subsequent civil trial depending on the facts of the case.

If you or someone you love has been injured a Boston drunk driving accident, call for a free and confidential appointment at 1-888-367-2900.

Additional Resources:

Drunken driving defendants can decide whether jury learns they refused breathalyzer, SJC rules, October 13, 2017, By John R. Ellement and Travis Anderson, Boston Globe

More Blog Entries:

Massachusetts Drugged Driving a Serious Problem, Police Say, March 28, 2017, DUI Injury Lawyer Blog