A recent, massive, 150-page report issued by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts found that judges in the state acquitted alleged drunk drivers far more often than juries, some times with shocking disparities in conviction rates.
The report was meant to serve as a major analysis of the state’s trends when it comes to handling drunk driving cases and analyzed some 60,000 instances of driving while intoxicated over a three year span.
Though disparities in conviction rates were discovered, some good news contained in the report was that corruption appears not have played a role in the process. Instead, the difference in conviction rates depended on a variety of factors including the level of experience of prosecutors and what evidence was admitted during trial. The study found that the most important issue that can result in a judge rendering a verdict of acquittal is when a young prosecutor is matched against an experienced defense attorney. Another issue that leads to acquittals is when there is no video of an arrest, a capability that many departments in the state lack and an element of proof many judges have come to rely on.
The report was launched after a major investigation was conducted by the staff at the Boston Globe last year which found that the state’s average rate of jury acquittals for such drunk driving charges was 58% in 2011 while bench trials saw an acquittal rate over 86% during the same period of time. The rates varied from county to county, but one of the most shocking disparities was in Worcester County which saw a 63% acquittal rate among juries as compared to a 97% acquittal rate from judges.
Those arrested for driving drunk in Massachusetts are given the choice to go before a judge or a jury. The decision is often quite strategic and has been known by some as judicial shopping, as defense attorneys seek out friendly judges for their clients.
All this ties in to Minnesota because as part of the report issued by the Massachusetts Supreme Court a variety of comparisons were included, especially to conviction rates in courts across the country. The study commission by the state’s highest court found that across all states the median conviction rate for such drunk driving cases was 80.5%. Massachusetts’ number was 77% of all cases came down against the defendant, including guilty pleas prior to trial. The highest conviction rate was in Michigan which came in at a stiff 94% while the lowest was here at home, Minnesota with a 74% conviction rate.
As we’ve mentioned before in a previous blog post, Minnesota has plenty of disparities in drunk driving conviction rates, with some parts of the state vastly more lenient than others. This raises concerns about fairness before the law as those who are unlucky enough to be arrested in unfriendly parts of the state suffer more severe punishment than those who find themselves before more lenient judges or sympathetic juries . Though perfect parity will be hard if not impossible to achieve, less wide divergences would prove to be a good thing for instilling faith in the criminal justice system.
Source: “Massachusetts judges issue more acquittals in drunken-driving cases than juries, state court study reveals,” by Stephanie Barry, published at MassLive.com.