The SJC recently heard oral arguments in the case of Commonwealth v. Zagwyn, and is considering the two main issues of improper opinion testimony by the officer as well as a conviction on a negligent operation charge. For the guilty finding on the negligent operation, counsel highlighted that the defendant was not pulled over for any erratic driving or marked lanes violations, but that he was simply pulled over for having a headlight out. Another argument raised in the SJC hearing is that the improper testimony by the officer prejudiced the defendant and ultimately swayed the jury. This is an interesting issue on the negligent operation charge. I had a client in Fall River who was found not guilty of OUI but convicted of negligent operation because she did not turn her lights on. As a practical matter, in some cases, it is thought to help the OUI to have the possibility of the jury splitting the decision, by finding the client not guilty on the OUI, the more serious offense and guilty on the negligent operation.
Originating out of the Barnstable District Court, the defendant was found guilty of OUI, negligent operation, and was found responsible for an equipment violation. Zagwyn was stopped by police for a headlight that was out; there was no mention of any marked lanes violation or erratic driving in the police report. Defense attorneys for Zagwyn are asking the SJC to reverse the guilty finding on the negligent operation, arguing that simply having your headlights out does not constitute negligent operation of a motor vehicle.
SJC Justice Graziano commented during the oral argument, asking defense counsel whether or not a defect in a vehicle, such as a broken headlight, would constitute a charge of negligent operation even if the defendant was driving in an appropriate fashion. In the brief filed by Defense counsel Meghan Oreste, she highlighted that most, if not all of the state’s evidence went only to the impairment element of the OUI charge.