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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Decision Strikes Officer Testimony in OUI Cases

The Supreme Judicial Court issued an opinion earlier this month, that held the common practice of eliciting opinion testimony from police officers regarding impairment in OUI cases is not permissible as evidence. breathalyzer.jpg

This case is noteworthy, because in practice, many prosecutors have developed a habit of simply asking officers their opinion regarding whether a driver was impaired at the time of the arrest, which the court held is a legal issue upon which a lay witness is not qualified to speak.

The case involved the stop of a driver in 2009. In addition to recanting facts regarding the circumstances of the driver’s field sobriety tests, the prosecutor asked the officer whether he had formed any opinions regarding the driver’s sobriety. To this, the officer replied, “I believed that his ability to drive was diminished.” This is testimony that the court held was impermissible, as it comes close to an opinion on the ultimate issue of guilt or innocence, in this case the standard for the OUI charge is whether “the defendant’s consumption of alcohol diminished the defendant’s ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.” Therefore, due to the well established law that “[n]o witness, including a police witness, may testify as to a defendant’s guilt or innocence,” this type of testimony is not allowed.

The court further stated that the probative value of the opinion must be weighed against the danger of unfair prejudice. In this case, it found that the while the testimony is heretofore inadmissible, the officer’s opinion was not deemed prejudicial in this case due to the other evidence regarding the defendant’s level of intoxication.

What further complicates this decision, or rather makes it somewhat confusing, is that the court affirmed the admissibility of opinion testimony regarding whether an individual seemed to be intoxicated or drunk. Tying these two strands together then, on this point, Commonwealth v. Canty held that:

  1. Prosecutors may ask police officers to testify regarding whether they believed the defendant appeared to be drunk or intoxicated; but
  2. Prosecutors may not ask police officers to testify regarding whether they believed the defendant was impaired or incapable of driving as a result of any perceived intoxication.

It is not difficult to see why this evidentiary ruling is important. Anyone can imagine the impact that police officer testimony has on the jurors. Even though officers are technically considered to be lay (non-expert) witnesses, jurors perceive them to be experts. If a police officer says that he or she believed the defendant was intoxicated, jurors are likely to take that as a fact, rather than what it truly is, an opinion. This is a great decision for defendants’ rights.

OUI/DUI/DWI charges are serious, and carry an accompanying serious penalty. An attorney specializing in OUI offenses will afford you the best chance at securing a favorable judgment, and perhaps even a pretrial diversion. Massachusetts defense attorney Patrick J. Murphy has extensive experience in handling Massachusetts OUI cases, and will battle arduously for your freedom. If you or someone you know is facing OUI charges, contact the Law Office of Patrick J. Murphy today for a free and confidential legal consultation. You can reach us by calling 617-367-0450 or completing the contacts tab on this website.

More Blog Posts:

Arrest Made in Connection with Cambridge Break-ins, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published November 14, 2013
Freetown Police Make Arrest After Finding Marijuana at Car Dealership, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published November 6, 2013