Police officers cannot legally arrest a drunk driver outside their territories unless they are in "hot pursuit" of the offenders from their own jurisdiction, the state's highest court ruled yesterday.
The Supreme Judicial Court unanimously upheld a lower court dismissal of a drunken driving charge against a Wilbraham man who was arrested in Springfield two years ago by a Ludlow police officer. Springfield District Court Judge Alvertus J. Morse said the arrest was invalid because Ludlow police Officer Basil Crandell was outside his patrol area and not in pursuit when he apprehended Eugene H. Grise. The high court agreed.
"The power of a police officer to make an arrest without a warrant is limited to the boundaries of the governmental unit by which he was appointed, unless the police officer is acting in fresh and continued pursuit of a suspected felon who has committed an offense in the officer's presence and within his territorial jurisdiction," said Chief Justice Edward F. Hennessey, writing for the court.
Because he was outside his jurisdiction when he sighted Grise, the court noted, Crandell, even though he was on duty, was acting essentially as a private citizen.
State law allows a citizen's arrest in felony cases. Drunken driving, however, is considered a misdemeanor and no state law exists governing a citizen's arrest for misdemeanors, the court said.
"This court has never squarely addressed the issue of power to arrest for a misdemeanor," Hennessey wrote.
But the court noted several other states have laws limiting citizens' arrests to felonies and said, "in the absence of legislative direction, we believe the latter approach to be more sound."
Allowing citizens' arrest for misdemeanors such as drunken driving, the court said, "might only encourage 'vigilantism and anarchistic actions.' "
The court, however, acknowledged the dangers posed by drunken driving.
"We recognize the necessity for removing intoxicated motorists from the roads before they harm themselves or other persons," Hennessey wrote.
Permitting police officers to apprehend suspected drunk drivers outside their jurisdiction might help alleviate the problem, but the court said it was a matter for the Legislature to undertake.
"If the Legislature in its wisdom wishes to broaden the powers of police officers acting outside of their jurisdictions, it may amend state law to accomplish this purpose," Hennessey wrote. "We decline to reach this result through the circuitous route of empowering private persons to arrest for misdemeanors involving a breach of the peace."
Arthur Licata, a lawyer who is a member of the state coordinating committee for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said he was pleased with the court's opinion.
"We're glad that the court has offered a simple remedy, which is to amend the existing law," he said. "We're also pleased that the court recognizes the seriousness of drunken driving."
Licata said he did not view the ruling as a victory or a defeat but a decision "that exposes a minor flaw in the law.
"What the court is saying is: 'Don't make us stand the law on its head; just change it through the Legislature and allow police to do the common-sense thing to reduce drunken driving,' " he said.
The court also suggested swearing in officers as special police in neighboring towns to bypass the problem of jurisdiction.
Stan Adelman, general counsel for the state Department of Public Safety, said the ruling would have a limited impact on statewide campaigns against drunken driving.
"It's a very unusual case and it's very unlikely to arise again," he said.
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