In a ruling dated February 21, 2020, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) found that an open container of alcohol is officially a civil infraction, and not a criminal violation. This decision clarifies the law not only for open containers, but for other motor vehicle violations that could have been interpreted as criminal based on previous court rulings.
In Commonwealth v. Mansur, the defendant was charged with OUI, possessing an open container of alcohol and failing to have a current and valid inspection sticker. The trial judge relied upon the ruling in Commonwealth v. Johnson, 461 Mass. 44, 50 n.7 (2011) to determine that the open container was a criminal violation. A jury found the defendant not guilty of OUI. This left Mansur with a criminal conviction of possessing an open container, which he appealed directly to the SJC.
The court analyzed whether the open container violation fit the definition of a “motor vehicle infraction” under Massachusetts law. A civil motor vehicle infraction is defined as an “automobile law violation for which the maximum penalty does not provide for imprisonment.” G.L. c. 90C § 1. The court concluded that on the flipside, a criminal motor vehicle infraction includes a maximum penalty of imprisonment. The defense and Commonwealth in this case agreed: the open container law does not provide for jail time.
The trial judge who found the infraction to be criminal was relying upon previous court precedent in Johnson. 461 Mass. 44, 50 n.7 (2011). However, this Court overruled the earlier holding that an automobile law violation must “necessarily and exclusively encompass the ‘operation and control’ of a motor vehicle”, because the holding departed from the plain language of the statute without any reasoning. Commonwealth v. Giannino, 371 Mass. 702 (1977), quoting G.L. c 90C, § 1.
The Court found that its 1977 interpretation that operation and control are necessary and exclusive gateways to a civil automobile law violation are “absurd”, and not what the legislature intended in enacting safety laws. For example, the Court looked to a seat belt violation which for a driver may be civilly charged and fined, but for which a passenger may face criminal charges because a passenger does not “necessarily and exclusively encompass the ‘operation and control’ of a motor vehicle”. The use of this standard results in civil liability for the driver and criminal liability for the passenger for the very same conduct. Through this example, the Court highlighted how the use of the Giannino standard results in “absurd” outcomes of criminal liability that the legislature did not intend. With this analysis, the Court overturned the use of the Giannino standard and determined that the open container statute is clear on its face that it was intended only to create civil liability.
The result of overruling these precedents is a clarification of the law, as written and understood by laypersons. The SJC, in clarifying the law on this matter, ruled specifically that an open container is a civil offense. The Court also made it much easier to understand where liability exists for other motor vehicle infractions, for both operators and passengers.