In the recent decision of Commonwealth v. Joseph J. Canty, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that in cases where a defendant is charged with Operating Under the Influence of Alcohol, a police officer may not offer an opinion at trial as to whether the driver’s ability was diminished by the consumption of alcohol or that he was probably impaired by the consumption of alcohol.
In this case, the defendant was pulled over for erratic driving. The police officer testified at trial that the defendant breath smelled of alcohol and that he noticed his eyes were bloodshot. The officer also testified that the defendant admitted to having consumed four beer a few hours earlier. After failing several field sobriety tests, the defendant was arrested.
With this background, the police officer offered the opinion at trial that the defendant’s ability to safely operate the vehicle was diminished and that he was probably impaired.
In evaluating the officer’s testimony at trial, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that although a police officer may properly testify that the driver “appeared intoxicated”, it was NOT permissible for the officer to offer an opinion as to the effect of any intoxication on the defendant’s ability to operate the vehicle. The court explained that the officer’s testimony in this regard touched upon the rule that no lay witness may offer an opinion as to a defendant’s guilt or innocence.
The court further explained that testimony as to whether the defendant was probably under the influence is perilously close to an opinion as to whether the defendant is guilty, an issue for the jury to decide. The court held that there must be a balance in a witnesses testimony. Specifically, a police witness would be permitted to offer an opinion concerning the driver’s level of intoxication but may not offer an opinion whether the driver’s consumption of alcohol had diminished his ability to operating the vehicle safely.
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