In a recent decision that promises to have substantial implications for Massachusetts criminal procedure, the Supreme Judicial Court (“SJC”) limited the discretion given to judges in framing jury instructions in cases in which defendants have been charged with drunk driving (known as “OUI” in Massachusetts).
The decision in Commonwealth v. Wolfe overturns a 2001 Massachusetts Appeals Court case in which the lower court held that a jury instruction directing jurors to disregard the absence of evidence of a breathalyzer test did not violate the defendant’s Constitutional rights against self-incrimination. In Wolfe , the SJC held that a such an instruction should only be given if requested by the Defendant.
According to the SJC’s reasoning, the standard instruction that informs jurors that they should only consider evidence presented at trial provides a sufficient safeguard that will ensure that jurors do not dwell on the absence of certain testimony or evidence. The court also concluded that instructions that specifically mention absent evidence actually risk drawing jurors’ attention to evidence that has not been presented. Following this decision, trial court judges must now refrain from giving any instruction that specifically mentions the absence of breathalyzer or other alcohol test evidence unless the defendant specifically requests it or other facts are presented at trial that would draw attention to the lack of breathalyzer evidence.
This case resulted from a 2015 traffic stop in which the defendant, Michael Wolfe, was pulled over by a police officer after being observed driving with a broken taillight and crossing the double yellow line twice in a short amount of time. The officer arrested Wolfe for driving under the influence based on his observations of Wolfe's driving and based on Wolfe's bloodshot eyes and slurred speech and his use of his car to balance as he walked back to the police cruiser. However, the defendant declined to take a breathalyzer test back at the station.
In the lower court, despite Wolfe’s objections, a judge instructed the jury to not consider the absence of breathalyzer or other alcohol test evidence in reaching its decision. After the jury returned a guilty verdict, Wolfe appealed, claiming that the instruction unduly focused the jury’s attention on the absent evidence, violating his rights against self-incrimination. Wolfe claimed that the instruction must have significantly impacted the jury’s consideration because the other evidence presented by the prosecution was fairly weak. The defendant attributed crossing the yellow lines to avoiding a snow bank and to his tires slipping when he was turning and explained his use of his car for balance as a standard precaution on a cold, icy February night.
On appeal, the SJC found that, when the evidence of a defendant’s impairment is scant, jurors may be more likely to engage in speculation, and jury instructions about specific evidence that was not presented may actually draw jurors’ attention to the lack of breathalyzer evidence, thereby encroaching upon a defendant’s rights against self-incrimination. The court decided that the “simpler and safer approach [in such cases] is to leave such an instruction to the defendant’s choice” and to rely on a more general instruction that tells jurors to only consider the evidence presented at trial.If you are facing criminal charges, you need an attorney who knows how to use legal developments like this case to reach the best possible result. Please contact James Gribouski and Darren Griffis at Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski for more information about how they can put their experience to work for you.