The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s decision to launch a statewide inquiry into drunken driving acquittal rates by judges drew mixed reviews this week from Edgartown district court’s first justice and questions from the Cape and Islands district attorney.
The state’s highest court has appointed Jack Cinquegrana, a former federal prosecutor and president of the Boston Bar Association, to examine acquittal rates in Massachusetts district courts when a defendant asks for a judge, rather than a jury, to determine guilt or innocence at trial.
The court said the inquiry began “some weeks ago,” but was publicly announced this week after a Boston Globe series on drunken driving cases began Sunday.
The Globe found, among other things, that defendants who choose a jury-waived trial are acquitted 82 per cent of the time, 51 per cent of the time in front of a jury. That acquittal rate appears to be significantly higher than those in other states, the newspaper said.
The Hon. H. Gregory Williams, first justice in Edgartown, expressed concerns about the SJC’s reaction to statistics that seem to suggest judges needed to “meet some performance quota” in administering justice.
“I have no hesitation at them looking at Edgartown at all,” the judge said in a telephone interview. “The SJC orders something, we’ll cooperate fully. We have no problem with that.”
And though he was unaware of the jury-waived acquittal statistics for the Vineyard, he said: “I have never heard from our administration that there is any problem in any way.”
The Globe’s numbers indicated that in the district courts of the Cape and Islands, the acquittal rate is 79 per cent by judges and 59 per cent by juries, but no figures were available for individual courts. The highest reported acquittal rate was in Suffolk County, 88 per cent by judges.
Cape and Islands district attorney Michael D. O’Keefe said he “was not surprised” by the statistics reported, but was by the SJC’s response, in part because the court has proudly embraced the fact that the Massachusetts constitution affords greater protections — to criminal defendants and others — than those found in the U.S. Constitution.
“It puzzled me that the SJC was wondering why the anomaly existed between our state and other states,” Mr. O’Keefe said.
The SJC, for example, bars prosecutors from entering into trial evidence a driver’s refusal to take a Breathalyzer test. Massachusetts is only one of two states in the country to have adopted that rule.
Mr. O’Keefe said that is one factor that makes some drunken driving cases difficult to prove at trial. Many of the cases that do go to trial, whether before a judge or a jury, have the weakest evidence, he added. “They are not easy cases to win,” the district attorney said.
The Globe series began on the heels of a Gazette report last week that drunken driving cases have dropped significantly on the Island and statewide. Last year, there were 38 per cent fewer cases filed in Edgartown district court than in 2008, which police attributed to their enforcement efforts and to smarter drivers aware of the stiff penalties if caught.
Another factor appears to have contributed to the drop: fewer summertime road patrols in Oak Bluffs, where a large proportion of the Island’s drunken driving arrests occur, because of town budget cuts.
The supreme court said in a statement that Mr. Cinquegrana was conducting a “preliminary, fact-finding inquiry” that is “intended to product independent findings that we will review and consider in determining whether any further actions are appropriate.”
The court said Mr. Cinquegrana will examine whether the acquittal rates differ from the national average and from those for other crimes. He also will determine whether the acquittal rates of individual judges “are substantially greater than the statistical average, and, if so, identify the possible reasons for the disparity.”
Judge Williams said he was skeptical that a statistics-driven story about the number of acquittals was helpful to improving the system of justice. Even a high acquittal rate by an individual judge does not constitute “evidence of a problem,” he said.
The cases must be examined on a case-by-case by basis. What would be worrisome is “if you find an ethical impropriety or a legal error,” he said.
“I would be surprised if anything untoward would be found on behalf of anyone [in Edgartown],” said Judge Williams. While he is first justice in Edgartown, he and a few other judges sit on Vineyard cases, as well as in other district courts.
Using the Globe’s numbers, 76 per cent of all drunken driving cases — whether or not they go to trial — result in a guilty verdict, guilty plea or an admission to sufficient facts, an agreement that is short of a guilty plea but places the offender on probation and subject to required alcohol education programs, costly probation supervision and the loss of license.
“If we have that in every class of crimes, that would be noteworthy,” said Mr. O’Keefe.
Some district attorneys are considering a push to change the law in Massachusetts that allows the defense to request a jury-waived trial, but does not require a prosecutor’s consent.
The federal system and that of some states requires that the prosecution also agree to a jury-waived trial. Mr. O’Keefe said he has not yet taken a position on the issue. “I’m still thinking about it,” he said. “There are good arguments, both pro and con.”