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Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules that a Negligent Operation Conviction Requires More Evidence than Simply Operating Under the Influence of Alcohol with a Broken Headlight

Massachusetts Appeals Court address what level of evidence is needed to convict for negligent operation.  In Commonwealth v. Zagwyn, the Appeals Court clarified the law related to evidence of negligent operation of a motor vehicle and OUI in Massachusetts. The central issue addressed by Zagwgnwas whether the Commonwealth meets its burden of proof on the negligent operation charge when the evidence demonstrates solely that the defendant was operating a vehicle with a defective headlight and rear license plate while intoxicated. The court also considered whether the officer’s opinion testimony that defendant was too intoxicated to drive a motor vehicle, the ultimate issue of guilt on the OUI charge, was improper and created a substantial risk of a miscarriage of justice.  In considering those arguments related to the OUI charge, the SJC summarily affirmed the defendant’s conviction for those reasons stated by the Appeals Court and offers no further discussion of the charge.

On the negligent operation charge, the SJC ruled that the evidence was inadequate to support the jury’s conviction and reversed the judgment of conviction. The evidence in Zagwynshowed that the arresting officer noticed that defendant’s vehicle had a broken headlight and rear plate light.  He followed defendant’s vehicle for about a mile before pulling him over.  While following defendant’s vehicle, the officer did not observe defendant speeding, swerving, or making any sudden braking movements.  When the officer stopped defendant’s vehicle, he moved the vehicle to a safe location.  Evidence obtained during the stop showed that defendant was operating the vehicle under the influence of alcohol.  The Commonwealth did not present any additional evidence of negligent operation. Defendant was convicted of OUI, negligent operation of a motor vehicle after a jury trial in the Barnstable District Court. The trial court also found defendant was responsible for civil equipment violations for the faulty headlight and rear plate light.

Prior case law dealing with negligent operation and what is enough evidence

In its opinion, the SJC distinguished the case law underpinning the Commonwealth’s argument that adequate evidence of negligent operation existed. While all the cases considered the defendant’s intoxication as a factor in a negligent operation conviction, they also relied on additional evidence separate from the impairment for the OUI charge. The SJC pointed out that in Commonwealth v. Daley, 66 Mass.App. Ct. 253 (2006)  defendant’s intoxication was a factor in a negligent operation conviction, but the negligent operation conviction was supported by additional evidence independent of that required to prove the OUI charge.  Specifically,  the defendant in Daleyoperated a vehicle while intoxicated, drifting over the fog line, crossing two lanes of traffic, sprawling over the breakdown lane and almost colliding with a large traffic sign before veering back into the travel lane.  It similarly dismissed Commonwealth v. Wood, 414 Mass 343 (1993) as inapplicable because in that case, the defendant was acquitted of OUI but convicted of negligent operation based on evidence that he had consumed alcohol before driving together with the additional evidence that he drove his vehicle off the road and hit a tree. The SJC also found Commonwealth v. Ross, 92 Mass. App. Ct. 377, 380-381 (2017) unpersuasive, as that case involved evidence of driving while intoxicated and speeding down a two-lane residential road at night to support a conviction for negligent operation.

While the SJC acknowledged that evidence of the defendant’s intoxication was relevant to the negligent operation charge, it reasoned that because OUI and negligent operation are separate offenses, a negligent operation conviction requires some supplemental, independent evidence that the defendant operated his motor vehicle in a way that put the public’s safety at risk.  Evidence of impairment for OUI may be considered as a factor but is not a substitute for the additional evidence required to meet the burden of proof for a negligent operation conviction.

The Zagwyn decision is important because it clarifies that when a defendant is charged with both OUI and negligent operation, a conviction for negligent operation requires supplemental evidence of negligent operation to be considered together with evidence of defendant’s intoxication.

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