New York’s driving while intoxicated statute divides levels of impairment into 3 subdivisions. Vehicle & Traffic Law (“VTL”), §§ 1192.1-3 [1989 ed.]. Subdivision one, a traffic infraction which carries non-criminal penalties, VTL § 155,5 defines driving while ability is impaired at VTL § 1192.1. Subdivisions two and three define driving while intoxicated and carry criminal penalties. VTL §§ 1192.2-3.
Subdivision one (“DWAI Statute”) states: “No person shall operate a motor vehicle while the person’s ability to operate such motor vehicle is impaired by the consumption of alcohol.” Despite the variance in penalties, convictions may occur under any of the subdivisions. Subdivision seven addresses convictions under the statute and states that a defendant charged under subdivision two or three may be convicted of a violation of subdivision one, two, or three, “regardless of whether or not such conviction is based on a plea of guilty.” The level of impairment necessary to violate the DWAI Statute is “any alcoholic impairment of the driver’s ability to operate such vehicle.”
The Legislature requires the Mass. Registrar to treat a DWAI guilty plea as a conviction even though New York law designates DWAI convictions as non-criminal in nature. Pursuant to the Massachusetts OUI Statute and G.L. c. 90, § 22(c), a guilty plea to a motor vehicle violation in the form of a DWAI in another state qualifies as a conviction because “motor vehicle violation” is not limited to those violations that result in criminal penalties. Thus, When the Mass. RMV receives notice of a New York DWI, DUI, or DWAI, the Registry will treat that NY violation for the purpose of license suspension or revocation as the drunk driving offense had occurred in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts “motor vehicle violation” definition provides no safe harbor for “like” DWAI violations that carry non-criminal penalties.
Although a DWAI conviction carries non-criminal penalties in New York, the impaired and intoxicated driving statutory scheme in New York clarifies that it is still considered a conviction. In subdivision seven, the New York statute states, “[a] driver may be convicted of a violation of subdivision one, two or three of this section …regardless of whether or not such a conviction is based on a plea of guilty.” VTL § 1192.7. Therefore, for Mass. license suspension and revocation purposes, a New York DWAI is treated the same as a Massachusetts DUI. Indeed, the Massachusetts Appeals Court has ruled that because the Mass. OUI law addresses a driver’s diminished ability to operate a motor vehicle safely under the influence of alcohol, a DWAI statute that also addresses such a diminished ability will be treated as drunk driving law and a violation thereof will be treated as a Massachusetts DUI. The Appeals Court held that variance of punishments between the two statutes are immaterial. The level of punishment does not affect the analysis because different states are likely to produce wide disparities in punishment for conduct that is otherwise substantively or substantially similar.
In conclusion, the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles will treat a New York DWAI guilty plea or conviction just like a Massachusetts OUI conviction, when it comes to license suspensions, hardship licensing, Melanie’s Law, and reinstatements.