A decision out of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court could spark big changes in the way that future drunk driving cases are handled. The opinion, which was released this Wednesday, says that juries should not hear an officer’s opinion regarding whether a driver’s consumption of alcohol was sufficient to impair his or her ability to operate their vehicle safely.
The recently decided case, Commonwealth vs. Joseph Canty, involved Canty’s 2009 arrest and conviction for drunk driving. Canty was pulled over and the arresting officer noticed indications of impairment. These indicators included things like slurred speech, unsteadiness and the distinct smell of alcohol. The officer later performed a breath test and confirmed that Canty had a blood alcohol concentration above the legal limit. At trial, the arresting officer took to the stand and said that in his opinion Canty had consumed enough alcohol to greatly diminish his ability to drive.
Canty appealed his conviction, saying that the officer in his case never should have testified to the impact that his impairment might have on his ability to drive. The Court agreed with Canty generally, but in his case decided that the jury had not been prejudiced by the officer’s testimony and his conviction was upheld as a result.
In it’s ruling, the Court said that officers in Massachusetts will be able to offer opinions about a driver’s level of intoxication based on the alcohol they consumed, but that they will not be able to weigh in on whether the person’s intoxication impaired his or her ability to safely operate a vehicle. The majority also decided that police officers could safely discuss what they observed about a driver’s behavior and physical appearance. This means that things such as bloodshot eyes, slurred words or the smell of alcohol can all continue to be brought forward to the jury.
Criminal law experts say that the decision is an important one in that it draws a bright line for future trials about what an office can and cannot say to jurors. Criminal defense attorneys say that the ruling is overdue in that it makes the obvious point that officers should provide facts to the jury, not opinions. Issues such as whether someone was impaired while driving are for the jury to decide and should not be prejudiced by the beliefs of the arresting officer.
Many say that the case brings drunk driving into line with existing rules that prevent officers from testifying at drugs trials about whether a defendant intended to distribute drugs. Such questions are clearly beyond the scope of an officer’s knowledge and rightly excluded from testimony
Source: “Massachusetts high court restricts police testimony in drunken driving cases,” by Nathan Mayberg, published at BerkshireEagle.com.