Converting Criminal Offenses to Civil Infractions

Under a little known law, G.L. c. 277, § 70C, a criminal automobile law violation such as operating after suspension or revocation can be handled as a civil instead of criminal violation. This may seem like a very attractive option, as it avoids giving the defendant a “criminal conviction.” However, it should be noted that for Registry of Motor Vehicles purposes, a criminal offense which is treated as a civil infraction in court is still regarded as “responsible” finding in accordance with the laws governing licenses suspensions and revocations. This means that the Registry and license suspension consequences will be the same. The “responsible” finding will be treated as a conviction and it will trigger an automatic license revocation. Also, the responsible finding will could as a “surchargeable event” for the purposes of insurance premium calculation and for the Mass. Habitual traffic offender law.

For the above-mentioned reasons, defense lawyers should think twice before agreeing to a plea bargain whereby a criminal offense such as operating after revocation or suspension will be disposed of as a civil violation. For RMV purposes, the outcome will be exactly the same: the client will lose his or her license.

A better outcome, which would avoid an automatic license suspension would be to have the case continued without a finding (CWOF’ed). Under this scenario, the defendant will make an admission to sufficient facts and the case will be continued without any finding of guilty for a pre-determined period of time. So long as the defendant doesn’t violate the terms of the continuance, the case will be dismissed and no license suspension will be triggered.

Certain offenses are ineligible for conversion to civil offenses and decriminalization. These include any type of operating under the influence in violation of G.L. c. 90 § 24, Juvenile Delinquency offenses, Leaving the Scene of an accident, drag racing, vehicular homicide, and various other criminal offenses which are exempt from conversion and decriminalization by statute.

It bears repeating that the Registry is legally entitled to treat any civil “responsible” disposition for a criminal offense which was converted as a guilty finding and conviction for the purposes of imposing statutory license suspensions and revocations. Therefore, a defendant facing a mandatory license suspension may be better off with a CWOF and, eventually, a dismissal pursuant to G.L. c. 278 § 18 instead of a responsible finding which will result in the loss of his or her license; this can be a very unpleasant surprise.