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Massachusetts Appeals Court Finds Sufficient Evidence to Sustain Drunk Driving Conviction

In the case of Commonwealth v. Rarick, the Massachusetts Appeals Court held that, evidence of alcohol consumption, speeding, along with the officer’s opinion that he was intoxicated, was sufficient to sustain a conviction for Operating a Motor Vehicle While Under the Influence of Alcohol.

The defendant was stopped by police for speeding; traveling 58 mph in a 45 mph zone.  Although there was no evidence before the jury of any erratic operation, field sobriety tests, nor any testimony that he was unsteady on his feet or swaying or staggering, the officer testified that he could smell a moderate odor of alcohol.  The defendant also admitted to having drank a six-pack 2 hours prior.

A jury convicted him of drunk driving, and the defendant appealed his conviction, arguing that the jury had before it insufficient evidence to sustain a conviction.  The appeals court disagreed with him and affirmed the conviction.

In so doing, the Massachusetts Appeals Court explained that, in prosecutions of OUI/ DUI, the prosecutor is only required to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant’s consumption of alcohol diminished his ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.  The prosecution is not required, however, to prove that the defendant actually drove in an unsafe manner. Evidence that the defendant was “drunk” is not required.

The appeals court reasoned that evidence that the defendant had consumed six beers shortly before he was stopped, as well as the officer’s opinion that he was intoxicated, coupled with evidence that he was speeding, was enough to warrant a jury to find the defendant guilty of drunk driving.

The appeals court essentially said that, at a bare minimum, the evidence was sufficient for the case to go to the jury.  Even though the totality of the evidence might have been weak or light, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the jury didn’t have enough the decide the guilt or innocence in this case.  As it pertains to issues of the weight of the evidence, no matter how minimal, those questions are for the jury to decide, and not the appellate courts.

Despite the appeals court’s ruling, I would tend to disagree with this particular opinion.  The appeals court appears to place particular emphasis on the fact that the defendant was speeding. Without that evidence, the jury would only have heard evidence that he had consumed alcohol and that the officer had observed an odor of alcohol on his breath.

But without any other evidence, such as field sobriety tests, improper operation such as swerving into other lanes, or that the defendant’s physical abilities were inhibited in some way, this case never gets to a jury.

So I think what the appeals court is saying here is, despite no evidence of physical impairment on the part of the driver, so long as there is some evidence of improper operation, then it’s enough to get the case to the jury.  The only flaw in this reasoning is whether speeding only 13 mph over the limit is sufficient to warrant an inference of impairment.

In my opinion, this reasoning opens the door to creating a much lower threshold to warrant cases on weak facts going to a jury…

Massachusetts DUI / OUI Lawyer Lefteris K. Travayiakis is available 24/7 for consultation on all Drunk Driving Charges, as well as Massachusetts Criminal Appeals.

Contact a Boston Drunk Driving Lawyer or call 617-325-9500.