In a recent criminal law matter, the Supreme Court of Connecticut considered whether a second DUI conviction within a period of ten years was a felony, or simply fell within the motor vehicle violation exception to the term “offense.”
In this case, the plaintiff was convicted of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI), in violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 14-227a, for the second time within ten years. Upon asking for a copy of his criminal record, the plaintiff saw that he was designated as a “convicted felon.” He petitioned the defendant, the Commissioner of Public Safety, to repeal regulations permitting the label, but the request was denied. The plaintiff promptly brought this action against the defendant.
The trial court concluded that even though a second OMVUI conviction “carries a term of incarceration consistent with the definition of a felony [greater than one year],” it is not a felony because pursuant to CGS § 53a-24(a), the motor vehicle violation exception applied. The defendant was permanently enjoined “from labeling any person as a convicted felon on the basis of a second conviction under § 14-227a within a ten-year period.” The defendant appealed, contending that the legislature intended that a second OMVUI conviction within ten years would be a felony and that the trial court misapplied the exception. Conversely, the plaintiff argued that the court’s conclusion was proper.
When a court embarks on an exercise of statutory interpretation, it must determine “whether the statute, when read in context, is susceptible to more than one reasonable interpretation.” If a statute’s language is ambiguous, the courts will consider legislative history, legislative policy, and the relationship of the statute in question to related legislation and common law principles. If, however, the statute was plain and unambiguous, “extratextual evidence of the meaning of the statute shall not be considered.”
In this case, the Supreme Court determined that the plain language of CGS § 14-227a shows the legislature intended that a violation constituted a criminal offense. It cites repeated use of “prosecution” and “criminal penalties” in the language, as well as the increasing penalties imposed. The Court noted that because two enumerated motor vehicle felonies may constitute “prior conviction[s] for the same offense as [OMVUI],” the legislature intended that OMVUI would be a comparable felony.
The plaintiff argued, however, that the breach in question fell under the motor vehicle violation exception of CGS § 53a-24(a), and therefore could not be a felony. “Motor vehicle violation” is not defined, though “violation” is defined as an offense punishable only by a fine. The Court determined that it is reasonable to apply this definition to “motor vehicle violation.” Because the legislature did not include such a definition in CGS § 14-227a, the Court stated that this “is evidence that the legislature did not intent for it to fall within the motor vehicle violation exception to the definition of offense.”
The court conceded, however, that “violation” and “motor vehicle violation” as used in CGS § 53a-24(a) could have multiple reasonable definitions. Did it just apply to breaches where a fine was the only punishment, or also those cases where a court could impose a term of incarceration? Because the answer was not clear, the Court reconsidered the meaning of § 14-227a in light of available extratextual evidence. The extensive legislative history of this statute supported the proposition that a second OMVUI conviction was a felony, a position bolstered by Connecticut case law, comparable statutes in forty-four other states, and ever-increasing penalties for breach. In addition, the Court noted that the legislature has long considered OMVUI a serious crime, and “[c]onstruing § 14-227a so that a breach is not a criminal offense… would frustrate the clear intent and public policy behind [the statute].” Thus, the Court found that a second OMVUI conviction within a ten-year term is a felony, and the judgment was reversed and remanded, instructing the trial court to enter judgment in favor of the defendant.
When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.
Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.