The Blizzard of 2013 reminded us what it was like to drive in snow as high as our windshields, but the statewide driving ban was a new twist for anyone under age 50, drivers and police alike.
The penalty for breaking it — up to a year in jail or a $500 fine — was the talk of the day during the storm. But once the ban was lifted, it disappeared from public discussion. I, for one, was left wanting to know more about it.
How many drivers broke the rule? What exactly were they charged with? Will they go to jail? Will their insurance rates go up because they disobeyed the ban?
The Globe reported that many local police departments didn’t enforce the ban because they were too busy dealing with the demands of the storm, so we’ll never know just how many drivers ignored it. But evidence suggests that Governor Deval Patrick’s executive order, the first of its kind in the state since the Blizzard of 1978, was highly effective in keeping people off roads while snowplows and emergency responders did their work.
Over the 24-hour period the ban was in place, on Feb. 8 and 9, State Police cited just five drivers for breaking it, said agency spokesman David Procopio. Troopers also issued “a couple of dozen” warnings to other drivers who were stopped during the ban, he added.
Instances of municipal police officers citing drivers were also rare.
Jack Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, sent an e-mail to its members across the state asking whether their departments cited any violators. As of Tuesday, only chiefs from Martha’s Vineyard and Deerfield reported that they had, Collins said.
More interesting, though, is the continuing confusion about how police were supposed to enforce the ban.
“The governor announced this without telling us about it,” Collins said. “We had a lot of chiefs calling us during the storm: ‘Can we arrest people? Tow their cars? Stop them?’ We learned a lot on the fly.”
Take the matter of arresting violators.
Terrel Harris, spokesman for the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, told me that police had the discretion to arrest ban-breakers on the spot. Procopio, with the State Police, told me that was his impression as well.
“If you have somebody who is violating a state of emergency ban, by definition that has to be a breach of the peace,” said John Sofis Scheft, a lawyer and police instructor who has an Arlington-based consulting business, Law Enforcement Dimensions. “I’m not saying they have to arrest. I’m not even saying they should arrest. But is it arrestable? Of course it is.”
But local police departments were told the opposite, that they could not arrest violators.
The way Collins interpreted the ban, the most an officer could do was write down a violator’s name and address, and file a criminal complaint later in a district court. In the Martha’s Vineyard and Deerfield cases, that’s what was done, Collins said.
Were police allowed to ticket drivers for breaking the ban? Even that basic question remains unclear.
Collins said he was in contact with Kurt Schwartz, director of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, throughout the blizzard, and was told not to ticket anyone.
“The direction we got from MEMA was clear: no citation could have been issued, no fine issued,” Collins said. “All you could do was file a complaint’' afterward.
From there, it would have been up to a district court official to dismiss the case, assess a fine, or sentence the person to jail time, Collins said.
Lieutenant Mark DeCroteau, with the Melrose Police Department, said one driver was caught breaking the ban on Feb. 9 after he allegedly ran a red light and caused an accident at Upham and Lebanon streets.
The responding officer, unsure about how to handle a driving-ban violation, cited the driver with negligent operation of a motor vehicle.
“I know that when the governor’s office did the announcement, they said there would be a $500 fine. However, in order to charge that individual,’’ DeCroteau said, the officer would have to go to court. In Hanover, police arrested a man for allegedly breaking the driving ban (and other offenses, including operating under the influence) after he nearly crashed into a police cruiser and kept on driving. But he wasn’t issued a ticket for being out during the ban.
“I’ve been here 31 years, and I’ve got to tell you, this one sent me back to the books,” said Police Chief Walter Sweeney. “The statute does not allow for a citation, in my opinion. Perhaps it is open to interpretation. It makes common sense that it would be on a motor vehicle citation because it involves the operation of a motor vehicle.”
State Police followed that line of reasoning, ticketing motorists for violating the Civil Defense Act of 1950, the statute that gave governors the authority to declare a state of emergency. While the threat of jail time was real, State Police chose only to issue $500 fines, Procopio said.
“Realistically, based on the circumstances of this, no one was going to go to jail just for that offense,” he said. “There was some monetary fine and a ticket was handed to them much like you would get a speeding ticket.”
It’s unlikely those motorists will see their car insurance rates rise, authorities said, although the state Merit Rating Board, which governs auto insurance issues, is reviewing the matter.
Time was not on the governor’s side when he declared the driving ban, which relied heavily on voluntary compliance, and unquestionably speeded the state’s recovery. Now that the blizzard is long gone, MEMA spokesman Peter Judge, Collins, Harris, and others I interviewed said they expect a formal review of the ban’s strengths and weaknesses before next winter.
In the end, the court system may have to decide whether police can arrest or ticket those who break driving bans. (Last week, the state’s District Court Administrative Office sent e-mails to a few courthouses instructing them not to process driving-ban tickets.)
Alternatively, DeCroteau suggested, lawmakers could write a statute that clarifies everything police and motorists need to know about a state driving ban.
As someone who drove during the ban, I certainly would have welcomed such instructions.
Bouncing along largely unplowed roads at 4 a.m. Saturday, heading to the Malden garage where the pickup truck I use for plowing snow is parked, I was sure I’d be pulled over by police.
Public works vehicles were among those excused from the ban, but “plow operator” isn’t printed on my license. So as a credential, I toted a large photograph of me sitting in my plow-equipped pickup truck.
What else could I do?
“Obviously someone reporting to work as a plow driver was most definitely an exemption, so that should have been all you needed,” Procopio said. “Good for you.”