Our Berkshires: A quick fix needed for OUI law ambiguity

A Berkshire County court case has exposed an ambiguity in the state's Operating Under the Influence (OUI) law that Governor Baker proposes closing through legislation. As there is no good argument in opposition, it is important that change become reality sooner than later.

The case involved a Pittsfield man, Timothy Dayton, who had two prior convictions for OUI when he was arrested and charged with a third in 2015. He was ordered held without bail as dangerous, but his attorney, Ryan Smith, cited an ambiguity in the law in which prosecutors could move for a dangerous hearing when defendants were "arrested and charged with...a third or subsequent conviction" for OUI (Eagle, Bob Dunn, June 15.) The case went to the Supreme Judicial Court which observed that "We do not know what it means to be 'arrested and charged with a conviction,' adding that "Being 'arrested' and 'charged' with a crime is wholly distinct from a 'conviction' for that crime."

Governor Baker's legislation would address this ambiguity, which may be no more than an error in syntax that had gone unnoticed until picked up on by Mr. Smith, by making it explicit that those charged with a third OUI should be eligible to be held in custody when a judge determines that their release would pose a severe danger to the community." Judges should clearly have this option as the state continues to try to reduce fatalities and injuries on the highway by removing drunken drivers from the road. (Mr. Dayton ultimately pleaded guilty to all of his charges in March of last year.)

MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) President Colleen Sheehey-Church urged the state Legislature to "hold all impaired drivers accountable for putting innocent lives at risk." We don't doubt that lawmakers want to do exactly that, but there is always a danger that a good bill will get lost in committee as work piles up on Beacon Hill. This one should be a priority because lives are at stake.

Drawing up an OUI equivalent for marijuana is another responsibility of lawmakers as they craft a recreational marijuana law following its approval by voters on last November's ballot. The House abruptly pulled its marijuana bill Wednesday in the face of criticism of some of its provisions, and the House and Senate disagree on the tax on marijuana sales, pot shop regulations, and whether criminal records of past marijuana users should be expunged.

There are only two weeks left before summer recess and it is unclear if failure to reach a compromise will cause enactment of the law to be delayed or will result in the law going into effect as articulated in the ballot referendum. The law first and foremost has to be gotten right, and that includes the wording of provisions that if not done with precision could come back to haunt the state in the future.


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