What is a Civil Conversion in MA Criminal Courts?

In Massachusetts, the civil conversion statute allows criminal courts to decriminalize certain minor offenses by converting them into civil violations.  

What is a Civil Conversion?

Under a little-known Massachusetts law, a lower level criminal offense can actually be handled as a civil infraction. The statute allows for a criminal court process whereby a misdemeanor offense is converted to a civil matter.

Civil conversion is therefore the decriminalization of the complaint against you. It is often negotiated by plea agreement.

Related Q&A: What is a plea agreement?

A plea agreement is also called a plea bargain or plea deal. A plea agreement occurs when a defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for the prosecutor’s agreement to drop one or more charges, or to reduce the charge to a lesser offense.

If your defense attorney negotiates a civil conversion on your behalf, the prosecutor will agree to request that the court handle the complaint civilly. If the court approves, your right to a jury trial and criminal adjudication will be waived. The judge will then determine whether you are responsible for the civil infraction.

If the court finds you responsible, your civil penalty will be a fine, usually of an amount set by law for the initial offense. But you will only receive a civil fine. No jail time, no probation, and no criminal record.

Examples of Misdemeanor Civil Conversion

Instead of pleading guilty to misdemeanor drug possession, your local defense attorney could negotiate with the prosecutor to accept a civil infraction. If the judge approves, the court will dismiss the criminal case and handle the matter as a civil violation.

Continuing with our example, under M.G.L. c.94C §34, the criminal penalties for possession of more than one ounce of marijuana is up to 6 months in jail or a $500 fine, or both jail and fine. These are the penalties for a 1st time conviction of the offense.

Upon conversion to a civil infraction for which you’re found responsible, you will only have to pay the $500 fine. More importantly, you will have no criminal record of any kind and will face no jail time.

An illegal drug possession charge is just one example of misdemeanor civil conversion. Others include misdemeanor theft, disorderly conduct, being present where heroin is kept, and misdemeanor motor vehicle offenses such as Operating After Suspension or Revocation.

Related Q&A: Does pleading guilty reduce your sentence?

Not necessarily. A good plea agreement negotiated from a position of strength should always result in lesser charges and a reduction in penalties. However, a sentence plea bargain operates on the recommendations made by the prosecuting attorney during a sentencing hearing. While judges typically go along with these recommendations, they don’t always approve of a recommended leniency. Read on to learn more.

Can My Case Qualify for a Misdemeanor Civil Conversion?

To qualify for civil conversion to decriminalize your charge, the offense must be either:

  • A misdemeanor
  • A municipal ordinance, or
  • A bylaw

It is also important to understand that:

  • A civil conversion means you will not be entitled to a jury trial;
  • Your civil fine may include restitution, when applicable, if you are found responsible;
  • If no fine is associated with the converted misdemeanor, the court can order a civil fine of up to $5,000;
  • A finding of responsible for converted misdemeanors such as OAS will still trigger a license suspension by the RMV.

When a CWOF is a Better Solution

As noted, certain motor vehicle offenses may not be best suited for civil conversion. That’s because the Registry of Motor Vehicles has the statutory authority to treat any criminal or civil matter as a violation of driving laws.

If you are facing a misdemeanor offense that is likely to trigger a driver’s license suspension, negotiating a continuance without finding —or CWOF, may avoid suspension and yield a more desirable result than a civil conversion.

Other Exceptions to Decriminalization

The decriminalization statute in Massachusetts excludes certain misdemeanor offenses. For example, the civil conversion statute prohibits decriminalizing a restraining order violation and most OUI / DUI offenses.

Chart of Exceptions to Decriminalization

civil conversion decriminalization in Massachusetts


How a Local Defense Attorney Can Help

A local criminal defense attorney should understand Plea Negotiation for misdemeanors and whether converting to a civil infraction is a possible plea agreement that is also desirable in your particular case.

Experienced defense lawyers in Massachusetts know the laws and policies in place for the jurisdiction where your case will be processed, including all options for resolving the case in the way that is most favorable to you. They also ensure you will get a better plea bargain than if you’re rushed into one or try to go it alone.

Without a thorough evaluation of the evidence, the applicable laws, your personal background and all the information you bring to the events that occurred; you cannot be certain of how you should plead or if a plea deal actually serves your best interests, or the prosecutor’s.

For all the above reasons as well as for the protection of your rights and freedoms, you should never plead guilty or accept any plea deal, including civil conversion, until you have consulted with an experienced, local defense attorney.

Attorney Gregory Oberhauser

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Gregory Oberhauser is the ONLY attorney in Massachusetts to be distinguished as an ACS-CHAL Forensic Lawyer-Scientist by the American Chemical Society!

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