Is there a Right to a Lawyer Prior to taking a Breath test in Massachusetts, SJC hears argument in Neary-French

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court heard oral arguments in the case of Neary-French v. Massachusetts last week to decide the question of whether a defendant should be advised of his or her right to counsel prior to making the decision of whether or not to submit to a breathalyzer test. The 2003 amendment to G.L.c. 90, §24 created the “.08 or greater” per se theory by which an OUI offense can be proven. Because a breathalyzer test can result in per se proof, the decision whether or not to submit to the test becomes a critical stage in conviction for an OUI. A critical stage is one in which the defendant’s rights could be sacrificed or lost. Before the 2003 amendment, the right to counsel did not attach because the Court did not consider the test a ‘critical stage’ in the criminal process and the assistance of counsel would create an undue delay in the administration of the test. There were reasonable safeguards in place to protect the defendant’s right. The 2003 amendment removed defendant’s safeguards and caused the breathalyzer to become a critical stage in the criminal process because the outcome of the test could possibly be the sole basis of a conviction.

Counsel for the defense illustrated what the process would look like if the right to counsel were afforded. When a person is pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence, they are immediately taken into physical custody. When they get to the station, they are then booked, a process that can take up to an hour. There is ample time to allow the defendant the right to consult with their attorney before the decision to submit to a breathalyzer test. There is concern about the dissipation of alcohol while the defendant is waiting on their lawyer. However, so long as the defendant is afforded the opportunity to place a call to a lawyer shortly after they arrive at the station, there will be a reasonable window of opportunity for the lawyer to advise their client without interference in the test process.

Courts in other states have held that the right to counsel attaches to the decision to submit to a breathalyzer test, including Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and New York. All of these states have found that the right to counsel before a breathalyzer test is guaranteed under the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments. It is not enough that a suspect in custody is given their Miranda rights, as Miranda only applies to testimonial evidence. The decision to submit to a breathalyzer is a critical stage in the process of conviction for an OUI and should be treated as such. The right to counsel should attach to ensure a safeguard for defendants before they make the decision that could produce direct evidence against them.

Read more about this case here.

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