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.
In a decision that will significantly impact the evidence that can be used against defendants charged with driving under the influence of marijuana (or, as they say in Massachusetts, operating under the influence or “OUI”), The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently restricted the extent to which field sobriety tests (FSTs) can be used as evidence of marijuana intoxication at trial. In Massachusetts, if a defendant is charged with OUI for allegedly being under the influence of alcohol, a police officer can testify about the person’s level of intoxication based on how they perform on the FSTs. However, the Court found that police officers may not use their observations of a defendant’s performance on these tests as a basis for drawing a conclusion about whether the defendant was under the influence of marijuana.
The case, Commonwealth v. Gerhardt , stems from a 2013 traffic stop in which the defendant, Thomas Gerhardt, allegedly “failed” multiple FSTs after being pulled over by a state trooper. Based on the defendant’s inability to adequately perform the tasks involved in these FSTs, the officer testified that he came to the conclusion that the defendant was “high” after smoking marijuana. Mr. Gerhardt’s attorney argued that such tests were designed to test one’s alcohol intoxication level and that they do not directly translate to the context of marijuana use. Fortunately for Mr. Gerhardt, the SJC agreed with that argument.
While standard FSTs are generally accepted by courts as reliable representations of a person’s intoxication from alcohol consumption, there is no scientific consensus about whether the tests are indicative of marijuana impairment. According to the SJC’s decision in Gerhardt , scientists have found that, unlike alcohol, which has a relatively predictable effect on most people, marijuana can affect different people in vastly different ways. Because of this variation, the court concluded that the FSTs do not necessarily predict whether a defendant is under the influence of marijuana. Thus, the court concluded that an officer may only testify as to his or her observations of a defendant’s performance on the tests and not about whether he or she concluded that a defendant was under the influence of marijuana based on the defendant’s ability to complete the administered tasks.
Furthermore, after the court’s decision in Gerhardt , an officer may not testify that a defendant “passed” or “failed” any FST, since that language “improperly implies that the FST is a definitive test of marijuana use or impairment.” The court also instructed that officers should avoid calling the FSTs “tests” in these types of cases and should instead refer to the tests as “roadside assessments” to prevent a jury from impropely jumping to a conclusion that the tests are scientific evidence of a defendant’s sobriety or intoxication. Finally, the court included model jury instructions for future trials that will tell juries that evidence of performance on FSTs alone is not sufficient to support a finding that a defendant’s ability to drive safely was impaired due to the consumption of marijuana.
If you are facing criminal charges, including charges that you drove a car while under the influence of marijiuana, please contact James Gribouski or Darren Griffis at Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski for more information about how they can put their legal knowledge to work for you.
November 1, 2017, East Brookfield District Court, East Brookfield, Massachusetts
Attorney James J. Gribouski’s client, a twenty-two year old Webster, Massachusetts woman was stopped by a Dudley, Massachusetts police officer for allegedly crossing the middle lines on the roadway. After the client performed standardized field sobriety tests, including the walk and turn and one-legged stand, the officer arrested her for OUI.
Attorney Gribouski obtained the police reports and booking video, and after reviewing that evidence, recommended that his client proceed to trial. At trial, Attorney Gribouski cross-examined the police officer on his observations of the client and presented a copy of the booking video in his client’s defense. After the judge heard the cross-examination of the officer and watched the booking video, Attorney Gribouski's client was acquitted of the OUI charge.
27, 2017, Central District Court of Worcester, Worcester, Massachusetts
Attorney James J. Gribouski’s client, a twenty-seven year old native of Revere, Massachusetts, was happily cruising down Route 146 at 94 miles per hour in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, smoking a bowl of marijuana when a Massachusetts State Trooper pulled him over. After the client admitted that he had just smoked the marijuana, the Trooper requested that he perform field sobriety tests and then charged the client with OUI marijuana.
During the pendency of the case, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued an important decision in Commonwealth v. Gerhardt . In that case, the SJC ruled that police can no longer offer an opinion as to whether a person was impaired by marijuana based on field sobriety tests (which are now to be referred to as "roadside assessments). Based on that recent ruling and his evaluation of the facts in the trooper's report, Attorney Gribouski recommended that his client proceed to trial, and the client was quickly acquitted.
October 26, 2017, Concord District Court, Concord, Massachusetts
Attorney James J. Gribouski’s client was stopped at a Massachusetts State Police Sobriety Checkpoint in Concord, Massachusetts. After performing field sobriety tests he was arrested for OUI. After carefully reviewing the police reports that he obtained, Attorney Gribouski recommended that his client proceed to trial.
At trial, Attorney Gribouski was able to point out several issues with the prosecution's case during cross-examination of the arresting officer. For example, he established that she did not observe that his client had slurred speech or was unsteady on his feet. Additionally, the officer testified that she did not see the client drive in an erratic manner. After establishing these favorable facts, Attorney Gribouski was able to rest his case without calling any witnesses. The judge then found his client not guilty of OUI.
In a landmark recent decision, Brangan v. Commonwealth , the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court held that judges must take a defendant’s financial resources into consideration when setting bail in a criminal case. Moreover, the SJC made it clear that, where the amount of bail appears to exceed a defendant’s financial resources, a judge must provide written or oral findings of fact and a statement of reasons for the bail decision.
This ruling is the result of a challenge to a lower court’s refusal to lower a $50,000 cash bail for a defendant who was confined for three-and-a-half years in Hampden County pending armed robbery charges. In reversing the Superior Court’s denials of the defendant’s requests for a lower bail, the SJC ruled that the judges failed to properly account for the defendant’s financial resources when in setting the amount of bail in the case.
According to the court, judges violate defendants’ due process and equal protection rights when they set bail amounts that have the effect of confining indigent defendants while charges are pending without regard for their financial constraints. Defendants who cannot afford to post bail suffer a loss of liberty during a period when they are supposed to enjoy a presumption of innocence and also lose the ability to fully participate in the preparation of their defense. While the court unfortunately stopped short of requiring judges to set a bail in an amount a defendant can afford, the decision in Brangan made it clear that judges must more clearly delineate the reasons for setting a bail that a defendant will not be able to pay.
Although judges were already required to consider a defendant’s financial resources in setting bail, this ruling should require judges to more carefully weigh that particular consideration, as well as requires judges to provide a statement of reasons when the bail amount exceeds the defendant’s resources.
If you are facing criminal charges, please contact James Gribouski and Darren Griffis at Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski for more information about how they can put their legal expertise to work for you.
In August, Massachusetts’ Executive Office of Public Safety and Security (the “EOPSS”) launched an investigation into the Office of Alcohol Testing (the “OAT”), the agency responsible for ensuring the reliability of breath test machines used by police officers in drunk driving investigations. The EOPSS recently released its summary of that investigation, which concluded that the OAT systematically withheld documents from defense attorneys during the pendency of a lawsuit challenging the reliability of breathalyzer test results because of an “unwritten policy not to turn these documents over to any requester.” The documents that were withheld contained evidence that some of the breathalyzer machines were not properly calibrated during the process used to certify the devices.
As a result of the investigation, the head of the OAT was fired. The EOPSS report laid the blame for the failure to provide the potentially exculpatory evidence squarely on the leadership of OAT, concluding that the agency committed “serious errors of judgment in its responses to court-ordered discovery, errors which were enabled by a longstanding and insular institutional culture that was reflexively guarded . . . and which was inattentive to the legal obligations borne by those whose work facilitates criminal prosecutions.” OAT’s failure to turn over documents allowed prosecutors handling the cases in which defense attorneys were challenging the breath test machines’ reliability to incorrectly represent that the state had complied with its discovery obligations.
Questions about the reliability of the particular breathalyzer (the Draeger 9510) were initially raised in 2015, but were ultimately dismissed by prosecutors, who maintained that any flaws in test results were because of mistakes made by officers in calibrating the machines and not because the machines themselves were malfunctioning. Defense attorneys again raised suspicions about the tests in July after a judge ordered the State to hand over roughly 400 worksheets that accompany breathalyzer calibration checks performed by state chemists, which had strangely not been disclosed by the State. When the missing worksheets were finally turned over, defense attorneys discovered that they documented serious flaws with the results that OAT obtained during the certification process.
The investigation raises series questions about over 58,000 drunk-driving prosecutions in which the Draeger 9510 machines were used. These cases date back to 2011 that and could impact more than 750 defendants over that time period. A further hearing on the problems with the breath test machines is scheduled for mid-November.
Massachusetts has been involved in a series of scandals involving state laboratories’ failure to properly maintain and analyze evidence. The convictions of two state chemists, Annie Dookhan and Sonia Farak, resulted in the dismissal of more than 21,000 charges against defendants who had drug cases. This investigation by EOPSS and the ongoing litigation regarding the state’s use of the breathalyzer machines is especially critical given that the OAT is the only agency in the state that performs scientific testing that is not audited by an independent accrediting organization.
If you pleaded guilty to, or were convicted of, driving under the influence of alcohol or OUI as the result of breath test results, you may have grounds to challenge your conviction. Although this post does not constitute legal advice, you should contact Attorneys James Gribouski and Darren Griffis at Glickman, Sugarman, Kneeland & Gribouski to find out whether your case may be impacted by the pending investigation.