Commonwealth v. Higgins holding that refusal of field sobriety tests can be used to establish probable cause

For one facing an OUI charge in Massachusetts, the first hearing will be an arraignment and then the next hearing will be a pretrial. This pretrial will be the defendants first opportunity to raise issues of evidence or even raise a motion to dismiss the charges. The purpose of this hearing will usually be for the judge to decide whether or not there is evidence that needs to be suppressed or to rule on any other motions by the defendant. If there is no probable cause for the charges and the defendant raises a motion to dismiss, the case should be dismissed at this point. The recent case of Commonwealth v. Huggins examines what evidence can be examined when determining if there is probable cause or not.

In Commonwealth v. Huggins, the defendant was arrested and charged with a second offense OUI. This is after police found the defendant off the road, facing the woods, stuck on rocks. After asking for his license and registration, the defendant had trouble finding it and the officer noticed a strong smell of alcohol on the defendant’s breath. After finally getting out of the vehicle, the defendant refused to take a field sobriety test and was arrested for an OUI. At the pretrial, the judge looked at the totality of the circumstances including the position of the car, the smell of alcohol and the defendant’s refusal to submit to the field sobriety test in determining if there was probable cause to continue the action. The judge denied the defendant’s motion to dismiss and the case proceeded to trial where the defendant was convicted. On appeal, the defendant raises the sole issue of whether the judge erred in concluding there was probable cause to support the charge of OUI.

The main issue here that the defendant raises is that the judge relied on the refusal of taking the field sobriety test in determining whether there was probable cause. The Supreme Judicial Court upheld the conviction and stated that a judge can use this refusal in determining whether there is probable cause. When a judge is determining this, she will have to look at the totality of the circumstances which is what the judge did when denying the defendant’s motion. The defendant also brought up the fact that there was a disagreement over the witnesses who brought forward the complaint, this being the officer. The court ruled that in the pretrial, a defendant will not have the right to cross-examine witnesses or call his own witnesses to show whether or not there is probable cause. This probable cause hearing is essentially a paper trial i.e. the judge will look at the facts as brought forth in the complaint and determine whether there is probable cause. Debates over facts and witnesses will be handled at the trial.

It is important to note that this appeal was over whether or not there was probable cause in the first place and not an appeal of what happened at trial. At trial, evidence of a refusal to do a field sobriety test is inadmissible. The prosecution still had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the defendant drove drunk and they succeeded in that. Just because a case gets beyond a probable cause does not mean the defendant will be guilty. Probable cause is a very low standard as compared to the standard at trial proof beyond a reasonable doubt. The decision in Huggins was not surprising for Massachusetts OUI Lawyers given the low standard of proof to satisfy probable cause.

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