May 21, 2012
BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are trying to close a loophole in the state's drunk driving law that was brought to light in a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision, Paul Souza v. The Registry of Motor Vehicles.
In 1997, Souza was arrested for the first time for drunk driving. Like many other first-timers, he was able to make a deal with the judge. He pleaded to what's known as a CWOF — a "continuation without a finding." It’s similar to but not technically the same as a guilty plea.
If Souza stayed out of trouble for a year, his case would be dismissed. And that's what happened.
In 2010, Souza was caught drunk driving again. He refused to take a breathalyzer test. Under the law, because this was his second offense, Souza should have gotten his driver's license revoked for 3 years.
But Souza’s lawyers argued, and on May 17 the state Supreme Judicial Court agreed, that because his first offense was a CWOF and not a conviction, his second offense should have been considered his first offense. So instead of having his license revoked for 3 years, it should have been revoked for just 6 months.
State Sen. Katherine Clark of Melrose said because of the Souza ruling, thousands of drunk drivers could get behind the wheel much sooner. "There are almost 30,000 court cases since 2008 where defendants have pled to continued without a finding. And if they were to re-offend and we did not change the law, then potentially, they would not be subject to all the enhanced penalties for a second offense," she said.
Clark, along with Attorney General Martha Coakley and key members in the House and Senate, want to change Massachusetts' drunk driving laws to make CWOFs count as convictions. The Senate could approve the change in the law as soon as next week. Lawmakers in the House are also pledging swift action.