The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently decided a legal issue in Massachusetts Drunk Driving Cases involving the proposed admission of a defendant’s refusal to submit to a Breathalyzer Test.
In the case of Commonwealth v. William H. Jones, Jr., the defendant was charged and proceeded to jury trial on the charge of Operating Under the Influence of Alcohol. Following his conviction, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court considered whether evidence of a defendant’s initial refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test, and then his subsequent request to take one, should have been introduced to the jury at his trial.
In Massachusetts, evidence of a defendant’s refusal to take a breathalyzer test is not admissible to the jury. Prior to trial in this case, however, the defendant requested the trial judge to allow him to introduce evidence that, although he initially refused the breathalyzer test, that he then subsequently requested he be given one but was denied by the police.
The trial judge, however, denied the defendant’s request and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled that it was in the judge’s discretion to do so because a trial judge may exclude evidence if he feels that its probative value is substantially outweighed by the risk of any prejudice.
The SJC held that admission of the breathalyzer refusal and evidence that the defendant then requested one would serve as only exculpatory evidence or evidence of consciousness of innocence. Massachusetts does not, however, allow evidence of consciousness of evidence to be admitted at trial because it has little value, and the court explained that a variety of different motives can prompt action consistent with innocence.
For example, in OUI / DUI, a defendant’s recantation of his initial refusal to submit to a breathalyzer test may be attributed not only with his innocence, but may also be attributed to his desire to avoid a lengthier license suspension for his refusal.
Where the admissibility of this type of evidence is squarely within the sound discretion of the trial judge, the SJC’s decision does not necessarily mean that no future defendant’s could seek to have evidence of their refusal admitted in their trial. As each cases facts and circumstances stand apart from other, it would obviously be incumbent on the trial judge in each case to independently weight whether the admission of evidence has sufficient probation value.
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