Massachusetts Appeals Court Upholds OUI Conviction that was Largely Proven by Medical Records

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a woman’s conviction for operating under the influence of alcohol, ruling her medical records from an ambulance company and a hospital were properly admitted at her trial.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Palacios

After running a stop sign and slamming into another car, the defendant got out of her vehicle and started yelling at the other driver.  The police showed up to the accident scene and spoke to the defendant.  She was unsteady on her feet and had glassy eyes.  She told the cops she had been drinking before she drove and she consumed between two and three drinks.  As the defendant was about to be arrested for OUI, she told the police she was injured and needed to go to the hospital.  An ambulance was summonsed and the defendant was transported to Whidden Memorial Hospital.  The EMTs wrote a report indicating the defendant smelled like alcohol and was “inebriated.”  The hospital records were even worse for the defendant, as they repeatedly described her as being intoxicated and stated the defendant admitted to drinking before the accident.  The defendant objected to the admission of the EMT and hospital records, but the trial judge allowed them to be shared with the jury (after ordering minor redactions).  The defendant was convicted and appealed.

A bulk of the defendant’s appellate argument was that the ambulance records were not properly admitted under a Massachusetts law that allows admission of medical records because ambulance records are not specifically referenced by the statute.  The Appeals Court conceded the statute does not reference ambulance records but pointed out that past decisions have liberally interpreted relevant statutes to allow for the admission of medical records at trials.  Because EMTs are required to be licensed as medical professionals in Massachusetts, their records are properly admitted in court under the medical records statute.

Next, the defendant argued the records contained impermissible conclusions from medical staff that she was intoxicated.  The statute that allows for the admission of medical records specifically states nothing in the records that reference the question of liability may be admitted.  Because the primary issue in most OUI cases is whether the defendant was under the influence of alcohol, you would think references in medical records to a defendant’s level of sobriety would be inadmissible.  However, Massachusetts appellate courts have consistently ruled that as long as the statements in the medical records relate directly and primarily to the medical history and treatment of the patient, they are admissible (even if they have “some bearing” on the question of liability).  Courts have concluded medical records documenting observations of a defendant’s lack of sobriety (or blood test results establishing a defendant is drunk) are admissible because doctors need to know whether patients are intoxicated in order to treat them properly.  Therefore, according to the Appeals Court, the records were properly admitted and the defendant was properly convicted.

When OUI suspects go to the hospital following accidents, the medical records are often devastating to their cases.  This is a perfect example.  If the defendant had not gone to the hospital, she could have argued she was unsteady on her feet as a result of the accident.  There was very little additional evidence the prosecutor could have used against her.  However, after the jury saw two sets of medical records concluding the defendant was intoxicated, her case became very difficult to win.