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Commonwealth v. Werra

On July 17, 2019, the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld the dismissal of the charge of OUI-Liquor due to a violation of the “no-fix” law in Commonwealth v. Werra. The case involved a woman who was charged with OUI-Drugs and subsequently charged with OUI-Liquor sixteen months after the incident. Ultimately, due to the lack of “prompt and definite notice of the nature of the alleged offense,” the Court upheld the dismissal of the charge of OUI-Liquor.

On July 22, 2015, following admissions, the defendant had used methadone earlier in the day and after showing signs of impairment, she was transported to the hospital for evaluation. After the defendant had already left the scene, the officer discovered a cup filled with an alcoholic beverage in her console. The arresting officer wrote a citation for OUI-Drugs, and a week later wrote a police report recommending that the District Attorney’s office request the defendant’s medical records.

It wasn’t until early August 2015 that a compliant was issued, and not until October 2015 that the defendant was arraigned on the charge of OUI-Drugs. Eight months following the incident the Commonwealth filed a motion requesting the hospital records, which weren’t received until May 16, 2016. The records indicated that the defendant had a BAC of 0.25%, more than three times the legal limit.

During this time, the OUI-Drugs case was set for trial on October 13th, 2016. The day before the trial date, the police applied for a new complaint for OUI-liquor - sixteen months following the incident. This new complaint contained the original police report dated on July 29, 2015, and included the defendant’s medical records. On the date of trial, the OUI-Drugs charge was dismissed at the request of the Commonwealth. The new complaint containing the OUI-Liquor charge wasn’t issued until January 25, 2017, and the defendant was not arraigned until July 14 2017, at which point her counsel successfully argued for the case to be dismissed based upon a violation of the “no-fix” law.

The “no-fix” law states that a citation must be given to the accused “at the time and place of the violation” and failure to do so may result in dismissal. There are two purposes for the “no-fix” law. First, is to eliminate the pressure officers may receive to either void citations or overcharge citizens. The second is to provide the accused with notice of what the citizen is being charged with, so they can immediately start preparing a defense.

There are three exceptions to this law. The Commonwealth relied on the exception that states that “where the court finds that a circumstance, not inconsistent with the purpose of this section to create a uniform, simplified and non-criminal method for disposing of automobile law violations,” to argue that the charge should not have been dismissed. With respect to the notice requirement, The Commonwealth argued that since the elements and penalties for OUI-Liquor and OUI-Drugs are similar, that is enough to provide notice of the nature of the alleged offense to the defendant. The Court disagreed with the Commonwealth and upheld the dismissal of the charge, relying on Commonwealth v. O’Leary, that reads the statute’s purpose is to prevent situations from occurring where individuals are unable to establish a proper defense towards charges due to being notified of the offense long after being charged, regardless of a defendant’s ability to show prejudice.