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Appeals Court Decision Affirms Negligent Operation Conviction on Minimal Evidence

slow-shutter-1171923-1-300x200In a recent Appeals Court decision, Commonwealth v. Ross, the Appeals Court ruled that the evidence was sufficient to support the defendant’s conviction of negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

The background was as follows. At 9:50 p.m., a police officer observed the defendant driving his vehicle at a high rate of speed on “a public two-lane road with narrow, unpaved shoulders and no breakdown lane. The road is lined by trees, telephone poles, and residential fences along where the incident occurred. The officer testified that the speed limit was thirty-five miles per hour. Using radar, [he] determined that the defendant was travelling at fifty miles per hour. The officer activated his police cruiser’s lights, and the defendant promptly pulled over to the side of the road. The officer observed that the defendant was the driver and noticed two … passengers in the [vehicle]. When the defendant lowered the driver’s side window, the officer ‘immediately detected … a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage’ and observed that the defendant’s eyes appeared ‘very glossy.’ The officer asked the defendant to get out of the vehicle and then performed three field sobriety tests on him.” “The officer testified that, in his opinion, the defendant failed to perform two [of the] tests satisfactorily, and failed to perform [the] third test ‘[a]s instructed.’” Also, “[w]hile conducting the sobriety tests, the officer observed that the defendant … spoke in ‘thick,’ slurred language; and … emitted the smell of alcohol as he spoke.” “The defendant ultimately was tried by a jury on a complaint charging him with (1) operating a vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor (OUI) … and (2) negligent operation of a motor vehicle. The jury acquitted the defendant of OUI and convicted him of negligent operation.”

In its decision, the Appeals Court noted that “[t]o obtain a conviction for negligent operation of a motor vehicle pursuant to G.L. c.90, §24(2)(a), the Commonwealth must prove that the defendant” drove “negligently so that the lives or safety of the public might be endangered.” “Here,” stated the Court, “the defendant was driving at least fifteen miles per hour over the speed limit on a dark tree- and fence-lined road, at night, through a residential area. The road was narrow; there were no curbs, breakdown lanes, or guardrails to mitigate the risk if the defendant lost control of his vehicle. The defendant’s relatively high speed increased the probability of a collision by impairing the defendant’s ability to react to hazards — whether expected or unexpected, natural or human — likely to occur in the area…. Moreover, the defendant was driving with passengers on the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, in a vehicle smelling strongly of alcohol…. The evidence allowed the jury to find that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol to such an extent that [his] physical condition was impaired during the field sobriety tests…. The fact that the jury ultimately did not convict the defendant of OUI does not preclude their consideration of the evidence of intoxication in considering the negligent operation charge…. In these circumstances, especially in light of the evidence of the defendant’s intoxication, a reasonable jury could conclude that he acted negligently.”

The Court’s conclusion that the minimal evidence in this case – essentially that the defendant was speeding and that he had been drinking – is sufficient for a conviction for negligent operation is extremely concerning for anyone charged with such an offense. If you or a loved one is charged with negligent operation, it is extremely important that you have an attorney who is familiar and up to date with the case, and who is able to distinguish the facts of this case from any similar factual allegations levied against you. Attorney Danile Cappetta is well versed in the law and has successfully defended many clients in similar cases. Call him for a free consultation today.