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Proving who was driving the car in a Massachusetts OUI arrest

In the recently decided case of Commonwealth v. Beltrandi, the Massachusetts Appellate Court has held that when there are two people in a car, the jury may infer whom the driver of the vehicle is when presented with circumstantial evidence. In the case of Beltrandi, the defendant was sitting in the driver seat of a vehicle stopped on Route 9, with another person in the passenger seat. The defendant admitted that she and the man in the passenger seat had been engaged in “sexual activity” in the vehicle. After exiting the vehicle and performing several field tests, the officer formed the opinion that defendant was intoxicated and placed her under arrest. The defendant did not dispute that the vehicle had been operated on a public way, or that she was intoxicated at the time of arrest, but instead challenged whether the Commonwealth proved that she had operated the vehicle.

The Court held that direct evidence that the defendant operated the vehicle was not required. However, an inference of circumstantial evidence that the defendant was the operator is not reasonable if the fact finder must resort to speculation, conjecture or surmise. Defendant argued that the presence of a second person in the vehicle renders the inference that the defendant was the operator unreasonable. However, because the defendant was in the driver’s seat when the officer approached the car, the Court held that it was reasonable that the jury could infer that the defendant had been the driver of the vehicle.

Ultimately, the Court of Appeals reversed the lower courts decision in Beltrandi, due to an improper closing argument by the prosecutor. The passenger in the defendant’s vehicle was unavailable for trial because he had moved to California. In his closing argument, the prosecutor asked rhetorically, “[I]sn’t it convenient” that the witness was not present, and “[w]hat else would he know that we may reasonably infer from the evidence that came in?”  At the close of this argument, defense counsel objected, pointing out that the prosecutor was aware that the witness in question was in California and was not available.  The prosecutor informed the judge that he was not asking for a missing witness instruction, but contended that he was still entitled to argue that the jury should draw an adverse inference against the defendant due to the absence of the witness. The judge overruled the defendant’s objection by indicating that he would not give a missing witness instruction. The Court of Appeals applied the prejudicial error standard: “An error is not prejudicial if it did not influence the jury, or had but slight effect; however, if we cannot find with fair assurance, after pondering all that happened without stripping the erroneous action from the whole, that the judgment was not substantially swayed by the error, then it is prejudicial.” The Court held that it could not say that the prosecutor’s improper argument did not have a substantial effect on the outcome. The judgment was reversed and the verdict set aside.

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