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Massachusetts SJC to address opinion testimony at OUI trial and whether there was enough evidence to conduct on negligent operation

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.

The Commonwealth’s argument to uphold the negligent operation charge was based around the fact that the defendant was driving on a dark road, for an extended period of time, late at night, does justify charging the defendant with negligent operation. Justice Gants challenged the State’s argument, highlighting that Zagwyn did, in fact, stay in the lanes, and was following the speed limit. The Justice also asked that assuming the defendant was not intoxicated, would driving without a headlight be considered negligent operation of a motor vehicle? The negligent operation was the main issue that was examined by the SJC and was at the forefront of the appeal.

The other issue addressed in the oral argument was the opinion testimony presented by the officer. While on the stand, the defendant argued that the arresting officer improperly testified to the ultimate issue of guilt- that the defendant was too intoxicated to operate his vehicle.  Defense counsel highlighted to the SJC that not only did the testimony prejudice the defendant, the testimony likely had a large impact on the jury’s decision to convict the defendant. The testimony should not have come into evidence as the officer said the defendant was simply too intoxicated to drive.

Defense counsel highlighted that many juries will give weight to a police officer as a witness, more-so than any other type of lay witness. Therefore, the strength of this statement likely caused the defendant to be found guilty in this matter which creates an inherent issue. Because the police officer was able to testify that he thought the officer was simply too drunk to be driving, the prejudicial effect it had on the case should be thought of as an injustice. The testimony was given by the officer while he was on the stand, as well as in the states opening and closing arguments. Without the state hammering this information, the jury may have come to a different conclusion.

You can read the full appellant brief the Massachusetts Appellant Courts website here.

If you have any questions about an OUI charge that you are facing, feel free to give Attorney DelSignore a call, at 781-686-5924.


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