In a very rare victory for the defense bar, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently ruled that police officers can no longer testify that a defendant’s level of intoxication impaired his driving. Now, an officer can only offer his opinion on how drunk a defendant appeared to be. Allowing opinion testimony on how the defendant’s driving was impaired, as it has been for years, essentially permitted police officers to make the decision for the jury by stating, “yes, he was under the influence while he was driving.” What type of testimony is a police officer giving at an OUI trial: an expert opinion, or a layperson’s opinion? A police officer is a lay witness when he testifies to how drunk a defendant was at the time the officer encountered him. Juries give a lot of weight to a police officer’s testimony as it is, and a jury needs to make its own determination as to whether the facts support the accusations.
Commonwealth v. Canty, SJC-11315 (2013)
In Commonwealth v. Canty, the defendant went to trial for operating under the influence of alcohol and negligently operating a motor vehicle to endanger. The defendant was pulled over after an officer observed his car drifting over the white fog line to crossing over the double yellow line. After he was pulled over, the defendant could not seem to figure out how to put the vehicle into park, keeping the car in reverse. While the defendant claimed the car did not belong to him, such actions did not look favorably on his sobriety. According to the police report, the defendant admitted to consuming alcohol that evening, tripped over his feet upon exiting the car, and failed the field sobriety tests. He was arrested after one police officer discovered a half empty bottle of liquor in the passenger side of the car.
The court ruled that commenting on a defendant’s ability to drive because he was drunk would be essentially stating the defendant was guilty of the crime of OUI. While a lay witness can testify to a defendant’s sobriety, the witness cannot testify to a defendant’s guilt, which is exactly what police officers do when, with the help of a prosecutor’s direct questioning, they tell the jury that his driving was impaired
At Canty’s trial, one police officer testified that the defendant’s ability to drive was diminished because the defendant consumed alcohol. The second police officer testified only that the defendant was “probably impaired.” While the testimony of the first officer was ruled inadmissible, the evidence against the defendant pointed to his guilt of OUI and, while there was an error on the judge’s part in allowing the testimony, the amount of evidence would have permitted the jury to rule a guilty verdict without the officer’s persuasion.
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