The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral argument in the case of Tirado v. Board of Appeals addressing the issue of whether a CWOF qualifies as a conviction for the purposes of CDL license suspensions. In Souza v. Registrar of Motor Vehicles, 462 Mass. 227 (2012), the SJC held that a CWOF could not count as a conviction for the purposes of calculating subsequent offense license suspensions. The SJC found that because the legislature did not explicitly state that a CWOF was a conviction it could not be used to enhance a license suspension by the RMV. The legislature quickly amended the statute to include CWOF as convictions.
The legislature however, never amended the CDL statute to address whether a CWOF was a conviction for the purposes of CDL license suspensions, leaving the SJC with an issue of great importance for Massachusetts OUI Lawyers.
Under Chapter 90F Section 1, a person is disqualified from holding a CDL license if he or she has certain convictions. The statute defines a conviction as follows:
An unvacated adjudication of guilt; a determination that a person has violated or failed to comply with the law in court of original jurisdiction, in an administrative proceeding, if the adjudication of guilt is within it jurisdiction; an unvacated forfeiture of bail or collateral, deposited to secure a person’s appearance in court, a plea of guilty or nolo contender accepted by the court, the payment of fine or court costs.
The Board of Appeals argued that a CWOF is a determination by the court that a person violated the law and that the Massachusetts statute was meant to mirror the federal statute to include a broad definition of conviction.
The defense argued that since the legislature never explicitly stated that a CWOF is a conviction it was not meant to be covered by the statute and that the legislature could have drafted the statute to explicitly define a CWOF as a conviction.
The federal regulations broadly define a conviction as an unvacated adjudication of guilt, or a determination that a person has violated or failed to comply with the law in a court of original jurisdiction or by an authorized administrative tribunal.
The Board argued that the definition of conviction under the Massachusetts statute mirrored the federal law. In response to one of the questions from a Justice, the lawyer for the motorist was asked what would a determination that a person violated the law consistent of if it did not include a CWOF. The lawyer for the motorist argued that because that finding is not imposed, it cannot qualify as a conviction. The Justice inquired if any other State uses the term CWOF. It appeared that the Justice may side with the Board based on the questions. The Justice suggested that the Court believed that a CWOF is the equivalent of a determination that a person violated the law and is at least as much of an adjudication as a determination that a person violated the conditions of release.
The State argued that failure to comply with the federal definition of conviction would result in Massachusetts losing federal funding and causing the federal government to shut down its CDL license program. As a result the legislature must have intended the Massachusetts statute to mirror the federal law.
The argument has important implications as if the Court accepts the argument that a CWOF is not a conviction those with CWOF would not be considered prior offenders for the purposes of applying for a CDL license in Massachusetts.
The defense argued that in the absence of specific reference to a CWOF in the federal statute or the Massachusetts statute, the issue is whether the plain language of the statute supports the Board’s interpretation of conviction. Relying on Souza, the defense argued that the Court already ruled that a CWOF is not an adjudication of guilt. Because any finding of guilt is deferred, the motorist argued that no judge made a finding that the defendant violated the law.
One lesson from this appeal is that the definition of conviction is extremely broad when you hold a CDL license.