Last month, the Supreme Judicial Court issued a ruling that will have far-reaching consequences for criminal cases involving charges of Operating under the Influence (OUI). In Commonwealth v. Canty, the SJC ruled that, in an OUI case, a police officer’s opinion as to whether the defendant’s driving was diminished by alcohol consumption is inadmissible in court. While an officer can testify that he believed the defendant was drunk or intoxicated, he cannot give an opinion regarding the ultimate issue in the case.
OUI cases turn on whether the defendant’s driving was impaired by alcohol, so in stating an opinion as to this issue, the officer is effectively saying that he believes the defendant is guilty. This interferes with the ability of the fact trier (a judge or jury) to independently determine guilt or innocence, and therefore this sort of testimony is not admissible.
In Canty, one of the arresting officers testified that, in his opinion, alcohol diminished the defendant’s driving ability. The SJC ruled that this testimony essentially amounted to one witness’ opinion about the ultimate issue to be decided by the trier of fact. However, another officer’s testimony that the defendant was probably impaired was ruled admissible, because it did not address the defendant’s driving.
The SJC actually upheld the defendant’s conviction, ruling that the error in admitting the first officer’s testimonies was not dispositive. The defendant had pled guilty, and enough admissible evidence was presented during his trial to convict him even without the first officer’s inadmissible testimony.
Prosecutors for years have utilized a line of questioning in OUI trials that allowed the jury to hear the arresting officer’s opinion about the defendant’s ultimate guilt or innocence. The prosecutor would start by restating the officer’s testimony up to that point, and then would ask if, based on those observations, the officer was able to form an opinion about whether the driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle had been diminished by alcohol consumption.
The officer would answer that yes, he had formed an opinion, and the prosecutor would ask him what that opinion was. The officer would then repeat his testimony again, and state that, based on those observations, he formed an opinion that the driver’s ability to operate a motor vehicle had indeed been diminished by alcohol consumption. The SJC’s decision in Canty effectively banned this sequence of questions. Police officers can still express an opinion that the defendant was intoxicated, but not that he is guilty of OUI.
OUI is one of the most common crimes charged in Massachusetts. Police officers often commit procedural errors while investigating and arresting a suspect for OUI. It is paramount for a defendant in an OUI case to be represented by an effective criminal defense attorney. An attorney who has experience with OUI cases can pick apart every detail of the Commonwealth’s case and may be able to get the charges dropped or win a Not Guilty verdict in court.
If you have been charged with violating Massachusetts criminal laws, you should immediately seek out the assistance of an experienced criminal defense attorney. Contact Edward R. Molari, Attorney at Law, today for a confidential consultation.