NEW BEDFORD — Nearly a year has passed since New Bedford City Councilor Hugh Dunn was charged with OUI — and more than a year since the state applied for the charges — and he has yet to stand trial.
Since May of 2021, the month Dunn allegedly hit two parked cars after spending a late night out at a local bar and restaurant, the city councilor was re-elected and arraigned in the same week; three New Bedford police officers were suspended after failing to properly investigate the crash; and a witness to the aftermath died of natural causes.
Dunn’s case is scheduled to be heard in court again on Thursday for a status session. His bench trial in which a judge, not a jury, decides the case was previously set for March 22, but was delayed after Dunn’s attorney, Tim Walsh, filed a joint motion requesting more time to gather and review evidence.
“As grounds herefor, both counsel for the Commonwealth and the Defendant agree to continue this case as the parties required additional time to gather and review relevant evidence in advance of trial,” states the motion, signed by Walsh. “There is an ongoing arbitration concerning this incident that involves the percipient witnesses. The testimony elicited and results of the arbitration are necessary and relevant for both parties [sic] cross examination and trial preparation.”
Neither Walsh nor prosecutor Daniel Bennett responded Monday to a request for comment on the trial delays and ongoing arbitration mentioned in the March motion.
New Bedford defense attorney John Seed, who has represented clients in OUI cases for more than a decade, said typically the cases can take six months to one year in court, with some cases less frequently finishing sooner.
It depends on the type of charge, whether it is the first OUI offense or a subsequent offense, whether there was an accident, and the court in which the case is being tried, he said.
“If you’re in a very busy court, then that’s going to be a delay,” Seed said, adding the amount of evidence to review can also delay the trial.
Dana Sargent, another New Bedford defense attorney, also said the speed of the case to trial can depend on the nature of the case, but noted a few OUI cases where the time between arrest and the bench trial ranged from four to six months.
Dunn was not arrested after the crash.
State police deny The Light’s request for records
With the criminal case pending in court, The Light filed a records request with Massachusetts State Police in March requesting all records related to the car crash.
In April, state police denied the request, with staff counsel Dan Brunelli stating the Bristol County District Attorney’s office informed MSP that relevant records related to the matter are subject to an open criminal investigation by the district attorney’s office.
Agencies have a basis to withhold records that are investigatory materials compiled by law enforcement, the disclosure of which would “‘prejudice the possibility of effective law enforcement’” and not be in the public interest, Brunelli wrote.
However, Gregg Miliote, spokesperson for the Bristol County District Attorney’s office, said by email that the “investigation into Dunn’s actions that night ended when we filed the criminal charges. I guess technically all investigations remain ‘open’ until the criminal case is disposed of, but nothing more has been done since the filing of the charges.”
The headline of the district attorney’s statement, issued last June, also pointed to a finished investigation: “Independent Investigation into Multi-Vehicle Crash Involving New Bedford City Officials Completed.”
In April, The Light appealed the state police’s denial with the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s Public Records Division and the same month, the division ordered MSP to submit, “without delay,” unredacted copies of all responsive records to the division so its staff could inspect them and determine whether records must be provided.
The division received records from MSP about 30 business days after it ordered the records without delay. After its review, the division in mid-July denied The Light’s appeal, determining MSP could withhold the responsive records from disclosure as the records pertain to an ongoing investigation.
MSP’s Brunelli wrote to consider renewing the request at the close of the open case.
He said dissemination of the material and witness information, including a “detailed analysis and opinion of cause of the motor vehicle crash in question as well as radio transmissions,” prior to the close of the matter could have a “harmful effect on the ability to have fair and impartial investigation,” and on the willingness of witnesses to come forward.
The Light has a pending records request with the New Bedford Police Department for the transcripts and audio recordings of 911 calls and communications between officers and dispatchers after the crash, and is awaiting a response from the department.
‘Very unique’ circumstances in Dunn’s case
The Bristol DA last year appointed a special prosecutor from outside the office to prosecute the case. Miliote said by phone that it was primarily due to the “very unique” circumstances of the original investigation by New Bedford police.
He said Bennett is operating with complete autonomy, but has the support of the DA’s state police unit should he feel more needs to be investigated.
Miliote said it was important to bring in someone who had no connection to the New Bedford Police Department, the witnesses or Dunn. Expertise, conflict of interest, an appearance of conflict of interest and limited resources also factor into the office’s decision to appoint a special prosecutor. Dunn, for example, has donated to Bristol District Attorney Thomas M. Quinn’s campaign.
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“You add all of that together, it seems it’s in the interest of justice to bring a special prosecutor in,” he said.
Bennett has been appointed special prosecutor by other district attorneys, including by the Norfolk DA in 2019 for a case against “two politically connected brothers” charged in a fatal Quincy bar fight.
Per police reports, Dunn hit two parked cars after consuming alcoholic beverages at Cork Wine and Tapas, and subsequently eloped from the hospital, where staff did not draw Dunn’s blood for medical purposes, according to records in New Bedford District Court’s case file.
He was charged with OUI, leaving the scene of property damage and negligent operation of a motor vehicle after an MSP detective assigned by the Bristol district attorney investigated the case. The New Bedford Police Department did not issue any citations or charges after the crash and subsequently disciplined its officers for mishandling the incident.
Dunn’s license was suspended after the state police investigator filed an application for an “immediate threat license suspension/revocation.”
Seed said that is the harshest suspension and that the Registry of Motor Vehicles typically will not entertain restoring the license until the court case is resolved.
Dunn has continued to serve as the Ward 3 city councilor after being re-elected in 2021, running unopposed. This spring, he joined Boston-based personal injury firm Kelly & Associates as an associate attorney.
He did not respond to a request for comment on Monday.
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