Military veterans may in some cases avoid conviction for driving under the influence in recognition of the toll of combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other war zones, the state’s highest court ruled Tuesday.
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Judicial Court cited the “often difficult return to civilian life” for veterans in interpreting a 2012 state law that carved out an exception to the state’s drunken-driving laws for returning service members.
That law, known as the Valor Act, allowed judges to divert some veterans accused of operating under the influence to rehabilitation programs before their trials. The charges against them are dismissed if they complete the programs.
“Imposing an alternative disposition to avoid a criminal conviction furthers these goals,” the court wrote. That approach is consistent with “a growing national recognition that the traditional processes of the criminal justice system fail to adequately support veterans suffering from substance abuse,” the court wrote.
The law was intended to provide an estimated 37,000 Massachusetts veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with access to health care, education, employment, and financial security. It demonstrated “special concern for veterans and active service military members struggling with substance abuse,” the court wrote, noting a “long tradition of according leniency to veterans in recognition of their service.”
The case involved Joel Morgan, an Army veteran who experienced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after serving three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was arrested in 2014 for driving under the influence of heroin, but his lawyers sought to have the charges dismissed under the Valor Act after he completed a rehabilitation program.
“I’m very happy with today’s decision for Mr. Morgan and veterans throughout Massachusetts,” said Elizabeth Hugetz, a staff attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services who represented Morgan.
“In its ruling, the court recognized the unique circumstances our veterans face, and ensured that through the Valor Act these veterans will receive access to necessary services to rebuild their lives.”
John C. Mooney, a lawyer who filed arguments in the case, said the decision marked “a big win for veterans.”
“It recognizes how hard it is to return to ordinary life after experiencing combat,” he said. “The goal is to return veterans who served their country as productive citizens.”
Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, said the decision means “veterans get an opportunity to get their lives back on track. But they have to get themselves back within the bounds of the law.”
Under the law, judges have the discretion to decide which veterans can receive treatment in lieu of criminal charges, he said. Prosecutors may object.
“The court is not opening the floodgates, but offering it in limited cases,” he said.
Some said they were concerned by the notion of reducing penalties for impaired drivers, veterans or not.
“We would in no way minimize what veterans go through,” said J.T. Griffin, chief government affairs officer for MADD, a national group that lobbies for tougher drunken-driving laws. “But still we would have some concerns about this decision,” he said.
Ron Bersani, who campaigned for passage of tougher laws on drunken driving after his 13-year-old granddaughter was killed by a drunk driver in 2003, said he was stunned by the ruling.
“I respectfully disagree with the decision,” he said.Sean P. Murphy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.