For years, police officers testifying in drunk driving cases had been allowed to offer a “lay” opinion as to whether or not a person was intoxicated, impaired or otherwise under the influence of alcohol.  Many defense attorneys have argued that these opinions were improper and should not be allowed at trial.  Finally, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on November 6, 2013 clarified this issue in the case of  Commonwealth vs. Joseph Canty.  In that case, Mr. Canty was pulled over after being observed by a police office to operate his vehicle in an erratic manner.  He was given several field sobriety tests that the officer claimed he did not pass.  He was placed under arrest for operating under the influence of intoxicating liquor (“drunk driving”).  At trial, the prosecutor asked the “standard” questions of the police officer including:

Prosecutor:      “And at that point [after the field sobriety tests] had you formed any opinion as to his sobriety, officer, based on your observations?”

Officer:           “Yes I did”.

Prosecutor:      “And what was that opinion?”

Officer:           “I believed that his ability to drive was diminished.”

Prosecutor:      “Did you have any opinion as to what may have caused that diminished capacity?”

Officer:           “I believe it was alcohol consumption.”

The Defendant was convicted and appealed his case to the highest court.  On November 6, 2013, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found that the judge at trial erred in admitting the police officer’s opinion that the Defendant’s “ability to drive was diminished” by his consumption of alcohol and that this was an improper opinion.

This case demonstrates that moving forward law enforcement’s opinions will be greatly curtailed with respect to his/her opinions concerning sobriety and intoxication in drunk driving cases.  This will level the playing field at trial.