It was Fitchburg State's alumni weekend, the old gang was in town and you met at Slatterly's Restaurant to catch up over martinis. You were feeling a little tipsy and starting to regret ordering that last one when your phone rang. It was your brother-in-law telling you that your sister had gone into labor and was in the hospital. You had to get over there. You hugged everyone goodbye and stumbled out to your car. You had only driven what seemed like a few minutes when a patrol car started following you. The next thing you knew you were being pulled over and charged with Operating Under the Influence ("OUI"). What do you do? What happens now? Here is some basic information about OUI cases in Fitchburg.
The OUI Law In Massachusetts
The OUI law in Massachusetts is set forth in General Laws, Chapter 90, Section 24. Driving while under the influence of alcohol (0.8% BAC or more) or other drugs is prohibited. The blood alcohol limits are lower if you are a commercial driver or under 21. The penalties become more severe with subsequent convictions, but even for a first time offender, can include a fine of between $500 and $5000, imprisonment up to 2 Â½ years, and license suspension. This OUI brochure from the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles ("RMV") provides a useful overview of the consequences for impaired driving.
The Traffic Stop
You were likely pulled over by the Fitchburg Police Department or the Massachusetts State Police because they had "reasonable suspicion" that you were operating your vehicle under the influence. Common activities that can give rise to reasonable suspicion include things like lane drifting, frequent braking, and erratic driving.
Once you are stopped, the officer will usually ask you a few questions about where you have been and whether you've had anything to drink. He will then typically ask you to step out of the car to participate in what are known as field sobriety tests. These tests, including things like balancing and tracking eye movement, are designed to allow the officer to observe you for signs of intoxication. You are not obligated to participate in these tests and many attorneys recommend that you politely refuse.
The Arrest and Chemical Test
Whether or not you participate in the field sobriety tests, the officer can still arrest you if he has probable cause to do so. He will then generally ask you to take a chemical test of your breath or blood. Under the implied consent law, by driving in Massachusetts you are deemed to have already consented to take such a test. You may refuse this test as well, but if you do your license will be suspended effective immediately (for 180 days for a first offender). If you take the test and fail (register over 0.08%), your license will be suspended for 30 days effective immediately. Â
In order to be released from police custody you will likely have to post bail (a promise made with money or collateral that you will return to court) or you may be released on your own recognizance.
If you refuse the chemical test, you do have the opportunity to request a hearing with the RMV on your license suspension, but you must act quickly â€“ within 15 days â€“ and the hearing is limited to 3 issues: 1) whether the officer had reasonable grounds for the arrest, 2) whether you were actually placed under arrest, and 3) whether you did in fact refuse the chemical test. If you prove the answer to any of these is "no," the suspension can be rescinded.
It is likely that your case will be heard at the Fitchburg District Court. Typically, the first court appearance will be the arraignment. This is when the charges are officially read against you, and you are advised of upcoming court dates. Following that you might resolve your case by way of plea bargain or you may proceed to trial in which case you will likely appear in court again for pre-trial conferences, hearings on motions (typically attempts to suppress evidence or statements from being introduced at trial) and ultimately, trial. Refer to the FindLaw section on DUI Court Procedure for more detailed information about the court process.
Driver Alcohol Education Program/Alternative Disposition
If you are a first time offender (or a second time offender from 10+ years prior) you may be eligible for probation and reduced sentencing. You will be required to complete a driver alcohol education program approved by the Department of Public Health. The primary advantage is that your license will be suspended for a shorter period of time and you will be eligible more quickly for a "hardship license."
In its discretion, the Registry of Motor Vehicles may issue you a hardship license valid for 12 hours each day in order to drive to and from work, school or medical treatment. In order to apply for such a license, you must attend a hearing and bring with you specified documents that illustrate you meet the criteria. Note that even if you meet all the criteria, the hardship license may still be denied. Refer here for an explanation from the RMV and downloadable hardship criteria forms. You will note that there are separate criteria forms for those qualifying under 24D.
Getting an Attorney
An OUI can have a significant impact on your personal and professional life and under Massachusetts' "lifetime look-back period" an OUI conviction will stay on your record forever. It may be a good idea to talk to a defense attorney about your options with both the criminal and administrative aspects of your case. Check out this FindLaw section on Using a DUI Lawyer for information on how an attorney can help you.