The state’s highest court banned the Registry of Motor Vehicles Thursday from increasing some sanctions against drivers who acknowledge they were drunk when stopped by police but whose cases are ultimately dismissed by a judge without a finding of guilt.
Writing for the unanimous Supreme Judicial Court, Justice Margot Botsford said that when Beacon Hill lawmakers toughened the state’s drunken driving law in 2005, they did not change the legal definition of what qualifies as a conviction of a driver.
Botsford wrote that the updated law, known as Melanie’s Law, did not include cases that are “continued without a finding’’ in its list of what can be considered drunken driving convictions. The law provides for increasingly tougher sanctions according to the number of convictions on a driver’s record.
“Even if we were to consider the purpose of Melanie’s Law, we are not at liberty to construe the statute in a manner that might advance its purpose but contravenes the actual language chosen by the Legislature,’’ Botsford wrote. “Under established rules of statutory construction, it would be improper to read admissions to sufficient facts into the definition of ‘convicted.’ ’’
In some cases, judges will allow defendants to admit that there is enough evidence to convict them, but then continue the case without a finding, resulting in a dismissal of charges if a driver does not reoffend within a specified period of time.
The ruling, which was made in a 2010 case against a driver stopped in Norton, has the potential to affect hundreds of cases statewide, a recent Globe analysis of drunken driving cases suggests. In Essex County between 2005 and 2011, about 20 percent of all drunken driving prosecutions were resolved by being continued without a finding.
In a statement released Thursday, motor vehicles Registrar Rachel Kaprielian said the agency will immediately abide by the decision.
“Drunk driving presents an unacceptable threat to public safety,’’ she said in the statement. “We remain committed to doing everything we can to protect and promote safe travel across Massachusetts.’’
Noting that the purpose of Melanie’s Law was to increase public safety by cracking down on drunk drivers, Botsford emphasized that the ruling “does nothing to interfere with the Melanie’s Law enhancement of many penalties for drunk drivers, including increasing the maximum penalty . . . for failure to take a breathalyzer test from a suspension of 18 months to a lifetime suspension.’’
Botsford also wrote that the Registry can increase the length of time that a convicted drunk driver must wait to apply for a hardship license under another section of Melanie’s Law.
Melanie’s Law is named for Melanie Powell, 13, who was killed by a repeat drunk driver as she crossed the street. Powell’s grandfather, Ron Bersani, pushed for the sanctions that were named for the teen when they were made law in 2005.
In an interview, Bersani said that he read the SJC ruling and came away believing the court had no choice given the way the law was written. But, he said, from a public safety perspective, the ruling was a disaster.
“It’s not a good decision in terms of society’s best interest,’’ Bersani said. “The intent of Melanie’s Law was to rid the road, or at least crack down, on habitual drunk drivers. Anytime you give habitual offenders an extra chance - that’s not in the best interest of society.’’
Bersani said he hopes the Patrick administration and lawmakers take steps to fix the loophole in Melanie’s Law that was highlighted by the SJC decision.
The ruling came in the case of Paul J. Souza, who refused to take a chemical breath test when he was stopped by Norton police for allegedly driving drunk in 2010.
Souza had been charged with drunken driving in 1997, but that charge was continued without a finding and then dismissed when he was not arrested again.
In 2010, when he refused to take the breath test, the Registry moved against Souza under Melanie’s Law, which gave the Registry the right to suspend his license for 180 days as a first offender, or three years as a second offender. The Registry decided the 1997 case counted as a first conviction and banned Souza from driving for three years because of the second charge, a sanction he challenged in the courts.
Last month, Souza was acquitted of drunken driving by an Attleboro District Court jury and had his license reinstated by judicial order, said his attorney, Joseph P. Cataldo. However, when Souza contacted the Registry, he was told he was without his license so long he had to first get a permit and then reapply for it.
Cataldo said he will now use the SJC ruling to urge the Registry to give Souza his license back immediately.
For others, Cataldo said, the ruling clearly instructs the Registry to stop choosing the most “draconian’’ penalties to impose on people who are being prosecuted for drunken driving.
“It’s not up to the Registry to take it upon themselves to do it,’’ he said. “It’s up to the Legislature to spell it out.’’John R. Ellement can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.