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State to probe drunken driving acquittal rates

The state’s highest court today said it has opened a formal inquiry into whether the state’s acquittal rate at drunk driving trials presided over by district court judges – a rate that eclipses 80 percent – is inordinately excessive, a step it said is necessary assure “the integrity of the judicial process.’’

The Supreme Judicial Court’s announcement comes a day after the Globe Spotlight Team reported Sunday that the judges’ acquittal rate is about 30 percentage points higher than the acquittal rate by juries – a degree of leniency that specialists have said is virtually unsurpassed in the United States.

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The “preliminary inquiry” is being conducted by Jack Cinquegrana, a former assistant US attorney and a past president of the Boston Bar Association.

“[He] has been asked to determine the rate of acquittal in jury-waived trials on charges of operating under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and examine whether that rate differs from the national average and from the rate of acquittal in other criminal cases in District Court and Boston Municipal Court,’’ the SJC said in a statement released this afternoon.

The Spotlight Team on Sunday reported that in some counties the rate of acquittals in drunken driving cases is soaring. Judges in Suffolk County, for example, are acquitting OUI defendants 88 percent of the time. Plymouth County judges are ruling against prosecutors 86 percent of the time.

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District County Chief Justice Lynda M. Connolly and other judges have said that the conviction rate is low because prosecutors, sensitive to public opinion, are reluctant to dismiss flawed OUI cases that lack strong evidence.

“It should be underscored that this is a preliminary, fact-finding inquiry, not a disciplinary inquiry, and does not reflect any prejudgment by the Justices as to information contained in the Boston Globe article,’’ the SJC said in its statement. “The preliminary inquiry is intended to produce independent findings that we will review and consider in determining whether any further actions are appropriate.’’

Cinquegrana’s review is “confidential and independent,’’ the justices said in their statement.

“As judges, we recognize the delicate nature of this preliminary inquiry,’’ the SJC said. “Our system depends on judges being able to decide a case fairly but independently, without fear or favor.

“A judge is obligated to find a criminal defendant not guilty if the government has not proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt; at the same time, a judge must find a defendant guilty where the crime has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt. Public confidence in the judiciary depends on its belief in the integrity of the judicial process, judges and their decisions. To preserve the public’s trust and confidence, the courts must be, and must appear to be, fair and impartial in all cases. We have asked Mr. Cinquegrana to conduct the preliminary inquiry in a manner that respects each of these principles.’’

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