Crimes involving impaired driving are common across Massachusetts courts. In fact, OUI cases, along with driving without a valid license and simple assault and battery, are perhaps the most frequently charged crimes. Having a basic understanding of how Massachusetts treats impaired driving cases is crucial for any driver who consumes some amount of alcohol and then drives. It is important to remember that it is not a crime to drink alcohol and then operate a motor vehicle. It is, however, a crime, to drive a car if the alcohol you have consumed impairs your ability to operate safely. 

The Elements of a Drunk Driving Case

All crimes consist of elements. Elements are simply things the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt in order for you to be found guilty. To be found guilty of OUI (Operating Under the Influence) in Massachusetts, the Commonwealth- the prosecution on the case- must prove that you, the defendant, did three (3) things. They include:

  1. That the defendant operated a motor vehicle
  2. That the defendant did so on a public way, and
  3. That while the defendant was operating the vehicle, the defendant was under the influence of intoxicating liquor.

What Does It Mean to Operate a Motor Vehicle?Drunk Driving Criminal Defense Attorney Hingham MA

Motor vehicles include automobiles and also include all-terrain vehicles. Operating the vehicle means you were doing any action which could set the vehicle in motion. This includes turning the key in the ignition. The vehicle does not need to have been moving, nor the engine running in order to prove operation. People have been found guilty of operating a motor vehicle under the influence when they were asleep in their car with keys in the ignition to turn the electricity on, even when the engine wasn’t running.

What is a Public Way?

Motor vehicles include automobiles and also include all-terrain vehicles. Operating the vehicle means you were doing any action which could set the vehicle in motion. This includes turning the key in the ignition. The vehicle does not need to have been moving, nor the engine running in order to prove operation. People have been found guilty of operating a motor vehicle under the influence when they were asleep in their car with keys in the ignition to turn the electricity on, even when the engine wasn’t running.

What Does It Mean to be under the influence of intoxicating liquor?

At its most basic level, “under the influence” means that the alcohol you’ve consumed reduces your ability to operate safely. In most OUI cases, this is the big issue. In other words, whether you drove a car and whether you were doing it on a public way, is not often something that will be litigated. The major issue in most cases is whether or not the prosecution can prove that you were impaired or under the influence. To prove that the defendant was intoxicated while operating a motor vehicle, the prosecution relies heavily, sometimes exclusively, on what the arresting officer heard, smelled, and saw.

Police officers are trained to look for signs that someone is intoxicated. At trial, the officer will likely talk about the observations that they made when pulling over the defendant. If the officer observed the defendant’s driving, they will discuss what caused them to pull the defendant over, such as if the defendant was drifting in and out of traffic lanes, or if the defendant was speeding up or braking erratically. This also might include observations the officer made while talking to the defendant, such as that the defendant’s eyes were glassy, the person smelled of alcohol, or the person was slurring their words or unsteady on their feet. If the police officer administered field sobriety tests, they will also include their observations on how the defendant performed.

These tests might include the Walk and Turn where the driver will have to take a series of heel-to-toe steps or the One-Leg Stand where the driver will be asked to raise one foot in the air and attempt to balance. Another field sobriety test is called the Horizontal and Nystagmus Test (HGN Test). This is where the officer waves a pen in front of the driver’s face.

The point of the test is to see if the eyes make any involuntary jerking motions (celled nystagmus) which can indicate that the driver is under the influence of alcohol. However, in Massachusetts, in order for the results of the test to be used in court, the prosecution needs a witness who can provide expert testimony (to offer expert testimony means the person can provide more information about the subject than the average person). Because most police officers are not able to give expert testimony on HGN Tests, results of this test are almost never allowed to be used at trial.

Does the Breathzlyer prove impairment?

Everyone has heard of the dreaded breathalyzer. A breathalyzer is an instrument that is said to measure to amount of alcohol in a subject’s breath. Based on that figure, a computation is then made to translate that figure into a BAC (blood alcohol concentration).

A number of .08 or higher is above the legal limit, and in terms of the law, means that you are impaired.

Can you refuse the breathalyzer?

If a police officer pulls you over for suspicion of driving under the influence, and asks you to take a breathalyzer test, you have a right to decline to take the test. This is called a“Chemical Test Refusal” and there will be consequences. First, the officer will take your driver's license. You will then be given written notice of the suspension of your driver’s license. This means you will not be allowed to drive until this suspension goes away. Your vehicle will be impounded, and the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) will be notified within a day of this happening.

Will I lose my license if I'm found guilty of OUI?

If you have never received an OUI, your license will be suspended for 180 days. If you have received one OUI, your license will be suspended for three (3) years. If you previously have received two OUIs, your license will be suspended for five (5) years. And if you have already received three (3) OUIs, your license could be suspended indefinitely.

If at trial, you receive a “Not Guilty” for having operated under the influence, then you can petition to have your license reinstated, meaning you get it back and can return to driving.

If you feel your license was unfairly suspended you also have the option of an RMV hearing for a chemical test refusal, but you must appeal it within 15 days of the arrest. However, this must be for a reason such as you were never placed under arrest for an OUI or you did not actually refuse the test.If you have never received an OUI, your license will be suspended for 180 days. If you have received one, your license will be suspended for three (3) years. If you previously have received two OUIs, your license will be suspended for five (5) years. And if you have already received three (3) OUIs, your license could be suspended indefinitely.

Can a chemical test refusal be used against me in court?

No. The prosecution is not allowed to mention that you refused to take a breathalyzer test?

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Facing criminal charges in Plymouth, Norfolk, Bristol, Barnstable, Nantucket County, or any surrounding areas? Contact Nate Amendola Defense today to schedule your free criminal defense case review, call us at 781-661-5450.

Nate Amendola
Massachusetts criminal defense attorney, helping resolve OUI, domestic violence, drug and criminal charges