As a Massachusetts OUI Lawyer when I reviewed a case I make sure that the Commonwealth can prove operation. In conversations with clients, many times the client will believe that the Commonwealth cannot prove operation because the client was not scene driving; however, Massachusetts OUI law does permit circumstantial evidence of operation. One of the key rules on operation is that a conviction of OUI cannot be grounded solely in the uncorroborated confession of a defendant. But what type of evidence is sufficient to establish corroboration. The Massachusetts Appeals Court in the case of
In recent weeks, the Appeals Court for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts clarified the standard of corroborated evidence required for convictions based on admissions. The Appeals Court addressed this issue in Commonwealth v. Lagotic, on March 15,2023.
What does it mean to Corroborate a confession?
In the case of Commonwealth v. Leonard, 401 Mass. 470 (1988), The Massachusetts SJC held that there must be evidence of a crime to corroborate a confession; in other words, an uncorroborated confession would not be sufficient to find an individual guilty of a crime. The Leonard decision often comes up in OUI cases involving the element of operation.
What happened in Lagotic from the Concord District Court
In Commonwealth vs. Lagotic, the defendant was charged with G.L.c.90, §24(1)(a)(1), operating a motor vehicle under the influence of intoxicating liquor. However, there was no witness to place him in the vehicle at the time of the accident. On appeal, the question turned on whether or not a trial jury had enough evidence to convict the defendant based on inferences made from his admissions that he was in fact the person operating the vehicle. The trial Judge in the Concord District Court found that the Commonwealth did not have enough evidence to prove operation and allowed a motion for required finding of not guilty after the jury returned a guilty verdict on the OUI charge.
In Lagotic, an Acton police officer responded to a call for a collision and, upon arrival at the scene, the officer observed tire marks that swerved close to the guard rails before continuing a few hundred feet into the woods. At the end of the tracks, the officer found a crashed black Toyota Camry with its front airbags deployed. The defendant was found at the scene. The officer made routine observations of an odor of alcohol, red and glassy eyes and slurred speech. The defendant agreed to take a roadside sobriety test but immediately failed and was placed under arrest.
In District Court, the jury returned a guilty verdict. There was no question that there was enough evidence to prove that the defendant was intoxicated at the time of his arrest. However, the trial judge entered a required finding of not guilty, concluding that there was no evidence that the defendant was operating the vehicle because the defendant’s admissions were not corroborated. The Commonwealth appealed this order to the appeals court.
What was the Evidence of Operation?
For this appeal, the only element at issue was whether or not there was sufficient evidence to prove operation of the vehicle. What was the evidence as to operation?
- First, the defendant told the officer that “he was coming on the on-ramp when he hit the snow and lost traction and went into the woods.”
- Second, the defendant further explained that he had driven from Belmont, where he was a barber, and had stopped for dinner and drinks. At first, the defendant confessed that he had consumed “one margarita” and then subsequently stated that he had consumed two.
- Third, at booking, the defendant said, “I think I have a concussion, I might need to see someone.” After the police summoned medical attention, a paramedic asked him how fast he was going, and he responded “60 to 70 miles per hour.”
A criminal defendant cannot be convicted solely on the basis of an uncorroborated confession, however, the corroboration required is minimal. As long as there is some evidence (besides the confession) that the criminal act was committed and that that the crime was real and not imaginary, the standard is satisfied. Here, the defendant’s repeated confessions to driving the vehicle constituted powerful evidence of operation. Additionally, there was adequate evidence corroborating the defendant’s statements according to the Appeals Court.
First, the defendant was found on the roadside near the crashed vehicle in the middle of the night. The accident had caused the airbags to inflate, and the defendant required medical care for a possible concussion. It is reasonable to infer that the concussion was caused by the blunt force of the airbag deployment. Finally, there was an absence of evidence tending to suggest that someone other than the defendant was operating the vehicle.
In sum, there was evidence that the crime of operating under the influence was “real and not imaginary” and this evidence was enough to corroborate the admissions bade by the defendant. The trial judge’s ruling was reversed on appeal and the case was remanded back to the District Court for sentencing. As criminal defense lawyers, it is important to still press this issue of corroborating the confession as other judges may have a different opinion; what is interesting as a practice note is that since the Judge revisers the decision of the jury, it is reasonable to infer that had the defendant elected a bench trial, he would have been found guilty as the issue of operation appeared very close in the case. The decision whether to elect a jury or bench trial can be a very difficult decision and requires an experienced Massachusetts OUI lawyer to help you decide which type of trial gives you the best chance for a not guilty verdict in your case.
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