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Angiulo: Defining the Law for Misdemeanor Arrests

Monday, January 11, 2016

 

Every so often an opinion will come down from an appellate court that seems minor. The recent case of Commonwealth v. Ubilez is an example. On its face, it seems to be a case describing why it was okay for an officer to search a car. Hidden in its text, however, is a definition of law enforcement's power of arrest in Massachusetts that can impact nearly anyone.

In the Commonwealth, there are two categories of crimes: felonies and misdemeanors.  A felony is any crime punishable by incarceration in a state prison. Everything else is a misdemeanor.  It can sometimes be hard for people to relate to felony level crimes like arson, trafficking in narcotics or assault with a firearm.  Many people, whether they will admit to it or not, will be a bit more familiar with the type of crime considered a misdemeanor.

The operation of motor vehicles is a heavily regulated activity and there are a number of behaviors that are misdemeanor crimes.  Driving with a suspended license for example carries a risk of fines, jail time, and further license suspension.  Operating a vehicle that has a revoked registration is another offense considered a misdemeanor.  A simple paperwork slip up or missing an insurance payment or two can lead to either one of these situations.  This is why these crimes are relatable in ways that felonies are not. 

What the Ubilez court wrestled with is a single question:  can an officer arrest a driver for a simple misdemeanor like driving with a revoked registration.  In classic legal fashion the answer is “it depends.”  

When it comes to misdemeanors involving motor vehicles there are some crimes that can definitely end in arrest.  Section 21 of Chapter 90 of the Massachusetts General Laws lists these arrestable offenses.  Among them are Operation Under the Influence of Drugs or Alcohol and Homicide by Motor Vehicle. The problem was, there are more motor vehicle misdemeanors out there than are listed in that statute.  Operating with a revoked registration is just one of them.   

In the absence of explicit statutory authority, the Appeals Court needed to step in and make law by relying on precedent.  Citing cases from 1934 and 1974 the court found that arrest is appropriate for a misdemeanor like operating with a revoked registration only in certain circumstances.  The circumstances required include a breach of the peace that is committed in front of an officer.  Also, the offense and arrest must basically happen at the same time.  Unless all three elements are present an arrest will not be considered justified.      

For those that still don't see the importance of this decision ask yourself this question:  are all your parking tickets paid?  If not, it may be more difficult to reinstate your driver's license the next time it's due.  

Leonardo Angiulo is an Attorney in the city of Worcester handling legal matters across the Commonwealth. He can be reached by email [email protected] and found on the web at www.angiulolaw.com

 

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