NBC10 Boston Investigators

Crash Questions: Pembroke Police Officer's OUI Case Disappears

A Pembroke police officer who caused a serious wreck was only cited with a marked lane violation when his own department investigated the crash. An outside probe later pursued OUI and negligent driving charges, but the NBC10 Investigators discovered the case quietly disappeared behind closed doors

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Bill Howland and Elayna Collin are still recovering from a serious car accident that sent them to hospital on April 25, 2021. It’s a moment they said forever changed their lives.

“I had a broken left pelvis that was smashed pretty good. I had to have a hip replacement,” said Howland, a carpenter who said he has been unable to work for more than a year. “And I have eight pieces of metal in my neck holding it together.”

Collin suffered rib and sternum fractures and told us she has trouble getting in and out of chairs. She also has lost income from her massage therapist profession.

“There are a lot of things I’m limited in doing and if I push myself, I’m hurting,” she said.

According to the police crash report, a Ford F-150 traveling along Center Street in Pembroke just before 6 p.m. crossed over the yellow line and smashed directly into the couple’s Honda Pilot, spinning it around into a tree.

James Burns F-150 pictured after the crash on April 25, 2021

A witness traveling behind Collin and Howland told police the truck was in the wrong lane for several seconds and never attempted to correct.

“All I remember is a pickup truck coming down the road and then turning right into me. And bam!” said Howland, “The pickup truck was in the windshield and I blacked out.”

“I thought I lost him,” Collin told us.

Bill Howland and Elayna Collin are still recovering from a serious car accident that sent them to hospital on April 25, 2021. It’s a moment they said forever changed their lives.

In the immediate aftermath of the wreck the couple learned the driver of the truck was off-duty Pembroke police detective, James Burns.

Howland’s reaction to learning that development?

“If [the officer] was drunk, we’ll never know about it,” he recalled.

If the NBC10 Boston Investigators hadn’t received a tip, Howland would’ve been correct. That’s because when Pembroke police responded to the emergency, officers only cited Burns for a marked lane violation.

Internal affairs records show it wasn't until two days later that Pembroke Police Chief Rick MacDonald requested an outside probe.

Because Burns was a detective, the Plymouth County District Attorney requested Cape and Islands District Attorney for assistance on the case to avoid a conflict of interest. Massachusetts State Police troopers were called in to conduct the investigation.

Criminal defense attorney Patrick Donovan reviewed the case and said there was an obvious conflict of interest by Pembroke police initially investigating one of their own at the scene of the crash.

“In a situation like this, the first move should be to reach out to higher-ups and bring in somebody from another department. They should’ve done that immediately” Donovan said. “That should be part of their standard operating procedure.”

This is Bill Howland and Elayna Collin's Honda Pilot, after it was struck by James Burns' F-150 on April 25, 2021.

A state police investigation we obtained said Burns had been at a local bar before getting behind the wheel. Witnesses told investigators Burns had been in a verbal altercation before leaving the establishment.

According to the documents, a Pembroke officer found both full and empty containers of Twisted Tea inside Burns’ truck at the crash scene. The officer told investigators he determined the cans of alcohol did not play a role in the wreck because they felt warm to the touch and must have been old.

The officer also said he didn’t smell any alcohol on Burns at the crash scene or notice signs of intoxication. However, a neighbor told investigators the off-duty cop appeared to be under the influence while standing outside his truck after the crash.

The state police investigation also revealed that Burns accessed his truck at the tow lot and was allowed to remove personal belongings. Troopers who later searched the truck did not find any alcohol containers inside.

“This is a unique situation. Typically, if there was enough suspicion, someone would have been arrested on the scene,” said Donovan. “There is something unusual in this case.”

According to the state police investigation, a search warrant revealed Burns’ blood alcohol test at the hospital registered at three times the legal limit. They ultimately pursued criminal charges of OUI and negligent operation.

However, just like that, we discovered Burns’ case simply disappeared.

Documents from Burns’ internal affairs file indicate he had a “show cause” hearing in Barnstable District Court. That’s when a clerk magistrate determines if there’s enough probable cause to issue a criminal complaint.

“These hearings are a real problem. They’ve become a stain on our court system,” said Justin Silverman with the New England First Amendment Coalition. “They’ve become a way for those in government, law enforcement, or those who are well-connected to evade justice and accountability.”

The entire clerk magistrate process takes place behind closed doors and if charges don’t go forward, the case remains hidden from the public.

In Burns’ case, after hearing testimony, the clerk found “no cause” for either criminal charge, according to a document in his internal affairs file. No other reasoning about the clerk’s decision was provided.

“That’s why this is such a big problem,” Silverman said. “We need to know what’s happening in our court system. Even if charges are dropped, we need to know why.”

The NBC10 Investigators successfully argued to open a recent “show cause” hearing to the public because it involved a government official.

As we first reported, Brockton’s police chief, Emanuel Gomes, caused a serious three-vehicle wreck on the highway while driving his department SUV in May 2021. State police determined Gomes caused the crash, but did not cite the top cop with any violations.

The case centers around a serious highway wreck in May 2021 that then-Brockton Police Chief Emanuel Gomes caused in his department vehicle, according to the crash report.

A private citizen later pursued a negligent driving charge against the former police chief and, after a public hearing, a clerk magistrate ruled the criminal complaint would go forward.

According to a summary of the events in Burns’ personnel file, the detective was placed on paid administrative leave on April 28. His “show cause” hearing was on August 27 and he was reinstated on September 14.

His personnel file is redacted in a section that would show if he faced any discipline with the department following the incident.

And that original marked lanes violation issued the day of the crash? That was dismissed in a Plymouth County magistrate hearing on September 22, court records show.

When we reached Burns by phone, the officer declined to talk to us about what happened.

After calling, emailing and even visiting the Pembroke police station, the NBC10 Investigators still haven’t received a response from Chief MacDonald about how his department handled the situation.

However, after we started asking questions, Howland and Collin said Burns showed up at their doorstep to apologize. They told us the police officer showed genuine remorse and they felt a level of closure to the painful ordeal.

They did ask us to still move forward with their story to hold the system accountable and improve transparency.

While it might not be justice, the couple is glad to finally be getting some answers.

“I’m happy the truth is coming out,” Howland said. “There needs to be some price to pay for ruining two people’s lives.”

Ryan Kath can be reached at ryan.kath@nbcuni.com. You can follow him on Twitter or connect on Facebook.

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