1:4. Operation of a motor vehicle Major case summaries

Research References

West's Key Number Digest, Automobiles &key;332

West's Key Number Digest, Automobiles &key;355(6)

C.J.S., Motor Vehicles §§1382 to 1394
C.J.S., Motor Vehicles §§1408 to 1411
C.J.S., Motor Vehicles §1545

Many decisions on the element of operation are fact specific. The following case summaries may be helpful in assessing the strength of the Commonwealth's evidence on the element of operation.

Com. v. Adams, 421 Mass. 289, 657 N.E.2d 455 (1995).

Facts: The charges arose as a result of an accident that occurred around 11:30 p.m. on February 14, 1992 when the defendant's car collided with another vehicle on the Lynn Fells Parkway in Saugus, MA. State Police Trooper Walsh arrived at the scene about ten minutes after the accident occurred and conducted an investigation. During Trooper Walsh's investigation the defendant admitted that he had been driving the Nissan Sentra involved in the two-vehicle crash and explained to Trooper Walsh how the crash occurred. Trooper Walsh testified at trial, without objection, that the defendant was identified by the other operator involved in the collision as the person who was operating the Nissan Sentra. Also, additional corroboration was provided by testimony that placed both drivers outside their respective vehicles when Trooper Walsh arrived and several bystanders present who did not dispute either operators' identities when Trooper Walsh was clearly treating the defendant as one of the operators of the two vehicles involved in the accident.

Held: Sufficient corroborating evidence of operation for a jury to return verdict of guilty.

Com. v. Colby, 23 Mass. App. Ct. 1008, 505 N.E.2d 218 (1987).

Facts: Commonwealth presented evidence that at about 3:30 a.m. on August 17, 1985 police officers of the city of Westfield found the defendant's automobile parked partially on the shoulder on a public street with the engine running, headlights on, and the defendant lying across the front seat with his feet near the driver's side.

Held: The court cited Com. v. Wood, 261 Mass. 458, 459, 158 N.E. 834, 834 (1927) in its holding that the circumstantial evidence presented by the Commonwealth was sufficient to permit the jury to infer that the defendant had operated the motor vehicle. The court cited the fact that where the defendant was found alone in the front seat of the automobile with his feet near
the driver's side and head toward the passenger side, one could infer that the defendant lay down in that position directly from sitting in the driver's seat. The court indicated that perhaps even more significant was the fact that the engine was running and the headlights were on when the police came upon the defendant in his car.

Com. v. Leonard, 401 Mass. 470, 517 N.E.2d 157 (1988).

Facts: On the evening of June 29, 1985, Gregory Beckley and three friends were driving on Route 91 in Northampton when they observed the defendant and his wife fighting on the side of the road near a parked automobile. Beckley and two other passengers got out of the van and approached the Leonard's, while the driver continued to call police. The defendant shouted at this wife, who had possession of the automobile keys, “Give me the keys,” “Give me back the F _ keys.” Shortly thereafter, three state police cruisers arrived. Beckley and Trooper John Keenan testified that when Keenan arrived at the scene, the defendant was sitting in the front seat of the automobile with his wife on his lap. The defendant was trying to put the key in the ignition, and his wife was struggling to stop him. The troopers physically removed the defendant from the automobile and placed him into protective custody in Trooper Keenan's vehicle. The defendant's wife asked for her cigarettes, which were retrieved from the passenger side of the automobile. While en route to the barracks, Trooper Keenan asked the defendant what had happened that evening and the defendant indicated that he had picked his wife up at her place of employment and while he was driving their argument commenced.

Held: Insufficient evidence presented to corroborate the defendant's admission that he was the operator. The Court indicated that the only issue of fact was whether the defendant had operated the vehicle and apart from the defendant's statements that he had operated the vehicle, the Commonwealth presented no other evidence to corroborate the defendant's admission. The Court cited the holding in Com. v. Forde, 392 Mass. 453, 457, 466 N.E.2d 510, 512–513 (1984) where the Supreme Judicial Court adopted the “majority rule of this nation that an uncorroborated confession is insufficient to prove guilt” in support of its decision to set aside the guilty verdict and enter judgment for the defendant. The Court indicated the rule adopted in Forde that there “be some evidence, besides the confession, that the criminal act was committed by someone, that is, the crime was real and not imaginary.” was simply not met. Id. at 458, 466 N.E.2d at 513–514.

Com. v. Manning, 41 Mass. App. Ct. 18, 668 N.E.2d 850 (1996).

Facts: The court found the Commonwealth's case consisted of the officer's testimony which essentially was as follows: Responding to an 8:30 P.M. radio call on February 4, 1994 at an intersection near South Station, he [the officer] saw a 1993 Pontiac on a traffic island in the middle of the intersection and resting on top of a downed ... traffic control signal. He observed firefighters rolling up fire hoses and that the Pontiac was soaked with water and still smoldering. After a conversation with the fire lieutenant, the officer walked across the street to the defendant, who was standing alone on the sidewalk approximately thirty feet from the Pontiac. Next to the
defendant were a brief case, a golf bag, and fishing tackle. The officer observed a couple of other people on the other side of the intersection probably fifteen feet away from the Pontiac. He did not recall there being more than seven or eight people on the other side of the intersection probably fifteen on twenty feet away from the Pontiac. He did not recall there being more than seven or eight people, other than police and firefighters, in that entire area at the time. In response to the officer questions, the defendant stated he was the operator of the Pontiac and that he had not been injured in the accident. He also produced a Missouri driver's license and indicated the registration was in the Pontiac and that the vehicle was a rental, a fact later verified by the police. An odor of alcohol about the defendant gave rise to further questions, leading the defendant to say he had four drinks. The officer, applying field sobriety tests, then asked the defendant to recite the alphabet. After three failed attempts at recitation, the defendant was able to sing the alphabet. There followed a balancing test, which the defendant performed successfully, just before blurting out that he was drunk and should be arrested.

Held: There was sufficient evidence presented to support a reasonable inference that the defendant operated the Pontiac. The vehicle's location, coupled with the evidence of a recent fire, support the conclusion that it been driven shortly before the officer arrived. The peculiar circumstances in that the defendant was observed while standing alone, not far from the Pontiac, coupled with his knowledge of the fact it was a rental, reasonably could connect him to the vehicle. Such circumstances and facts combined with the defendant's cooperation with the field sobriety tests permits an inference of operation (coupled with the defendant's admission of operation).

(Taken from Drunk Driving Defense in Massachusetts, pg. 21-23)