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Top Judge Defends Reported Mass. Drunk Driving Acquittal Rate

BOSTON — An investigation by The Boston Globe found that when state judges in Massachusetts hear drunk driving cases without a jury, those judges acquit the vast majority of defendants — more than 80 percent of them. That’s about 30 percent higher than the drunk driving acquittal rate by juries, and it’s substantially higher than in many other states, according to the Globe’s tally.

WBUR’s All Things Considered host Sacha Pfeiffer spoke with the president of the Massachusetts Judges Conference, Judge James Collins, and asked him if those statistics were alarming to him.

JUDGE JAMES COLLINS: What’s really alarming to me is the lack of recognition for an essential right for each citizen of this state, and that is the presumption of innocence and the duty to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt and, in Massachusetts, to a moral certainty. I’m not really protecting judges, but that’s my major concern.

SACHA PFEIFFER: This investigation found that even in cases in which the people had failed multiple field sobriety tests or had taken a breathalyzer test in which they clearly showed a blood alcohol content above the legal limit, those still resulted in acquittals. How do you explain how that is not beyond a reasonable doubt?

Well, I can’t. And the reason I can’t is that if each case is going to be viewed on the evidence of that individual, particular case, and go through the exacting analysis of our adversarial system, then picking out snippets from a case is not a way of determining whether the judge did the correct job.

In some counties, like Suffolk and Plymouth, we’re talking about an 88 and 86 percent acquittal rate, respectively. The president of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association makes the point that that indicates that police are wrong 85 to 90 percent of the time when they bring drunk driving cases.

But let’s take a look at what the police’s standard was when they made the decision to arrest. It doesn’t mean that the police were wrong because the standard for the police is not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty. The standard is probable cause. It’s an entirely different standard.

So you’re saying that for those of us who weren’t in the courtroom, it’s not fair to make a call that that was clearly a case that deserved to be a conviction and a person found guilty — we just can’t know unless we saw it on a case-by-case basis?

Yes.

After the Massachusetts court system became aware that a story would be published about this seemingly high drunk driving acquittal rate, state court administrators began holding training seminars on the state’s drunk driving laws for all District Court judges. Do you think that the judges in this state are educated sufficiently about our drunk driving laws and how to enforce them?

Yes. I think that they examine carefully the evidence and I think they make sure that the case is proved beyond a reasonable doubt to a moral certainty. Yes.

There is some evidence that police in Massachusetts have less enthusiasm to enforce drunk driving laws because they feel that judges often let those drunk drivers off — the drunk drivers they arrested. I’m interested in your thoughts about that.

Well, I know my colleagues have enormous respect for the police. We know it’s a very dangerous job; it’s one of the toughest jobs that a man or woman can have. And we hope that they would not become disillusioned. But, again, the job of the judge is to assure that the constitutional right of each individual citizen is protected and if the commonwealth cannot prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, then the individual citizen deserves the right to be found not guilty.

Do these acquittal statistics raise any concerns for you?

If there’s a specific judge that has broken the law and has broken his or her canon, they shouldn’t be on the bench, plain and simple. But to take a broad-based approach and reduce all of this to a type of a statistical analysis that forgets about the individual right of a citizen to justice, in that sense these statistics do not raise a concern with me because I don’t think they prove the assertion that judges across the state are being too easy and too lenient on people who operate under the influence.

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