A ruling made by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in February made an important change to a law that has been on the books since 1982. As a result of the ruling, drivers in the Bay State who are caught with an open container of alcohol in their vehicles will be charged with a civil rather than a criminal offense. The ruling was made in the case of a man who was charged in 2018 with operating a vehicle while impaired by alcohol and being in possession of an open container of alcohol. The case has now been referred back to a district court.

OUI laws revised to crack down on drunk driving

The open container law was passed during a legislative effort to deter motorists from getting behind the wheel after consuming alcohol and crack down on individuals convicted of drunk driving offenses. Under the provisions of the 1982 law, motorists could face criminal charges if they were observed drinking from an open container while driving. The law was revised in 2000 to make merely having an open container in any part of the passenger compartment a criminal offense even if it belonged to a passenger. The change was made to meet federal regulatory guidelines and ensure Massachusetts continued to receive highway funds from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Justices rule that promoting safe driving is a civil matter

After hearing arguments from prosecutors and defense attorneys, the justices determined that the open container law was passed to improve road safety and violations of it should be treated as civil infractions. The case the justices ruled on involved a defendant who was acquitted of OUI by a jury but convicted of possessing an open container. The case made its way to the commonwealth’s highest court after defense attorneys appealed the denial of a pre-trial motion to dismiss the open container count.

Mounting a defense against OUI charges

The defendant’s acquittal on the primary OUI charge reveals that the outcome of a drunk driving case is never certain. If you are charged with operating a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or drugs, an experienced criminal defense attorney could seek an acquittal or dismissal by challenging the reliability of the toxicology evidence, highlighting procedural errors made by the police officers involved or questioning the legitimacy of the traffic stop.