The recent case of Commonwealth v. Bones explains the interrelationship between the General Laws of Massachusetts, and the ordinances and bylaws of the various municipalities in the Commonwealth. The case involved, among other issues, the question whether an individual may be arrested for drinking in public.

The pertinent facts are these, namely: the defendant was walking down the street in the City of Chelsea when a police officer observed him to be drinking from a “nip” bottle of alcohol. When the officer approached the defendant, the defendant apologized and dumped out the bottle. Believing that he had just witnessed an arrestable offense, the officer detained the defendant to check for outstanding warrants. The officer subsequently became aware of such a warrant and arrested the defendant, who was later found in possession of bundles of cash and bundles of heroin. He was charged with possession of heroin with the intent to distribute.

At trial, the police officer testified that drinking alcohol on a street or sidewalk in Chelsea is an arrestable offense. No other evidence was offered regarding the criminality of public drinking. After trial, the defendant was convicted, and he then appealed.

On appeal, the defendant submitted a copy of the Chelsea ordinance regarding public drinking, but the Appeals Court noted that the ordinance was not submitted into evidence at trial, and further noted that, pursuant to Commonwealth v. Rushin, “[i]n Massachusetts, the contents of a municipal bylaw or ordinance may be proved by oral testimony,” and that the trial judge had found the police officer’s testimony regarding the bylaw to be reliable.

The Appeals Court also relied on G.L. c. 272, section 59, providing that any person who, in public, willfully violates an ordinance “the substance of which is the drinking or possession of alcoholic beverage,” is subject to arrest.

The defendant’s appeal was therefore denied with respect to the right of the officer to detain him to check for warrants, as the officer in fact had probable cause to make an arrest.

So if your town or city has a bylaw or ordinance prohibiting public drinking, the police can arrest you for public drinking, even if the bylaw or ordinance only calls for a fine, pursuant to the General Laws, and if there is something in a bylaw or ordinance that you want the trial judge or jury to know about, you had better introduce it into evidence, because the court may not take judicial notice of the local law, and because a police officer is allowed to testify as to what the local law is.

Attorney Kevin D. Quinlan
The Law Offices of Kevin D. Quinlan
2 South Main Street, Suite 201
Uxbridge, MA 01569
(508) 723-6384