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OUI Drugs conviction overturned by Appeals Court in recent case

OUI drug charges can be difficult for the Commonwealth to prove. This was evident in the recent case of Commonwealth v. Sousa, decided last week. In this case the defendant was convicted of OUI drugs and negligent operation of a motor vehicle after a bench trial in the Malden District Court. Bench trials are very common for an OUI drugs charge given the technical nature of the evidence and defenses.

After the guilty verdict, this case was brought to the Appeals Court. The defendant had appealed his conviction because he had believed that the Commonwealth presented insufficient evidence that the defendant was, in fact, under the influence of a prohibited substance.  In reaching its decision, the Court relied on the decision of Commonwealth v. Ferola, which also found that the Commonwealth must presented particular evidence as to the substance it is alleged that a defendant is under the influence of to support a conviction.

Summary of the Case

The defendant Sousa was pulled over by a Malden Police Officer after a bystander had witnessed the defendant apparently ‘passed out’ in the driver’s seat of his car after inhaling a substance from a canister and alerted the police.

The Officer at the scene had claimed that he had also witnessed the defendant spray an aerosol container into his mouth, which prompted the Officer to order Sousa to turn off the car. Ignoring the command, the defendant placed the car in drive, initiating the Officer to pull out his weapon, and after the defendant finally obeyed the command, the Officer ordered him to exit his car. Sousa did not appear to understand what he was being instructed to do

Eventually, two aerosol canisters were confiscated from Sousa’s vehicle. It was later found that they were computer cleaners and contained difluoroethane. Difluoroethane is a substance that is defined, by PubChem, as a colorless, odorless gas shipped as a liquefied gas under its vapor pressure.

Ultimately, the Appeals Court reversed the decision of the District Court and found the defendant not guilty of operating while under the influence of drugs, however affirmed that the defendant is guilty of negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

How did the Appeals Court reach this decision?

The defendant was convicted of negligent operation, which is an easy charge to prove. In some cases, a defendant may elect to submit a plea of a CWOF on the negligent operation at a bench trial to avoid the additional 60 day license loss that accompanies a guilty finding.

When it comes to the question of whether or not he was under the influence of an illegal drugs, the answer becomes more technical. The main chemical in the aerosol container that Sousa had been inhaling was difluoroethane, which is not included in what is considered an illegal drug, according to the law. Although the Commonwealth argued that the chemicals in the can that the defendant had inhaled fell within the scope of these words, they in fact, do not. After consulting the National Institutes of Health Web, the Court found that the substance that the defendant was inhaling was not equivalent to any of the substances identified in the law regarding this matter. With that said, the Court did not find Sousa guilty of operating a vehicle while under the influence of an illegal drug.

This case shows that an OUI drugs charge has some technical aspects to the defense that make these cases tough for a prosecutor to prove in Court.

To Learn more about what a Prosecutor has to prove to establish the elements of an OUI drug conviction, you can see the jury instructions that would be provided to the jury at trial.

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