Appeals Court upholds Massachusetts OUI conviction despite improper police testimony

Building on the state high court’s recent decision in Commonwealth v. Canty, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals held a booking officer’s testimony in an OUI trial inadmissible to the extent that the officer stated his opinion about a defendant’s inability to safely operate a vehicle. This decision affirms the restrictions on police testimony in OUI trials, while also reminding Massachusetts OUI attorneys of their duty to take proper procedural measures to raise objections and claims on behalf of their clients.

Background
In the matter of Commonwealth v. Saulnier, No. 12-P-931 (Mass. App. Dec. 6, 2013), the Appeals Court heard the case of a driver who was arrested on OUI charges after totaling a vehicle that was travelling in another lane. One of the witnesses to the accident was the owner and a passenger in the vehicle totaled by the defendant. The witness allegedly saw Saulnier pull out of a liquor store and travel diagonally across traffic lanes colliding into her own vehicle. The officer responding to the scene subsequently arrested Saulnier after detecting evidence of alcohol intoxication.

After Saulnier was transported, he was booked by a Waltham police sergeant who testified that Saulnier had trouble spelling his own name, stating his zip code, and answering other basic questions. Saulnier was charged with both criminal offenses and civil infractions, and he waived his right to a jury trial.

Police Testimony
During the prosecution’s case, the booking officer was called to testify about his observations of Saulnier during the OUI trial. When asked about his own opinion of Saulnier’s intoxication during direct examination, the booking officer replied:

“I formed the opinion that [Saulnier] was intoxicated and that his ability to safely operate a motor vehicle had been impaired due to the consumption of an alcoholic beverage.”

While Saulnier’s attorney raised an objection to this statement, she failed to elaborate on the reason for her objection. The trial judge overruled her objection, and ultimately found Saulnier guilty on the OUI charge. Saulnier appealed the decision to the Appeals Court, and the Appeals Court ultimately affirmed the conviction.

Although the conviction was upheld, the Appeals Court did find that the latter portion of the booking officer’s testimony regarding Saulnier’s impairment was inadmissible because it spoke directly to an “ultimate issue” in the case. In Massachusetts courts, as well as in federal courts, a lay witness can not testify as to one of the issues to be decided by the fact finder. In OUI cases, because the defendant is charged with operating while under the influence, one of the ultimate issues of the case to be decided by the fact finder is whether the defendant’s driving ability was impaired by alcohol consumption.

By testifying that Saulnier’s ability to drive was impaired due to alcohol consumption, the booking officer’s testimony crossed the boundaries of admissible testimony and stated a conclusion that the fact finder alone must reach. As stated by the SJC in Commonwealth v. Canty, a witness’s opinion on an ultimate issue interferes with the fact finder’s duty to independently assess the evidence and reach a conclusion on that ultimate issue. Therefore, the booking officer’s testimony about Saulnier’s inability to safely operate a vehicle, and describing the cause of this inability as alcohol consumption, was inadmissible as opinion on an ultimate issue.

Reasons for Upholding the Conviction
With that dispute resolved, the Appeals Court still upheld the conviction because of the defense attorney’s failure to properly object to the testimony during the trial. Although the officer’s testimony was partially inadmissible, the defense attorney failed to alert the court to the problem in the testimony. If a defense attorney does not raise a proper objection or move to strike the problematic testimony, the issue is not considered preserved, and so cannot be raised on appeal.

Because the issue was not properly preserved, the Appeals Court only reviewed the record to ensure that inadmissible testimony did not substantially risk a miscarriage of justice. This is a higher standard of review that will be satisfied only if there is a real danger that the inadmissible testimony wrongfully caused Saulnier’s conviction. But because the Court found the evidence against Saulnier to be so robust, it held that the officer’s inadmissible testimony was ultimately harmless.

Criminal proceedings, particularly OUI trials, can be very complicated as well as harmful to the defendant record and personal life. But there are several strong challenges that a defense attorney could raise to protect your interests and ensure that your rights are secured.

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