Jury Instruction Relating to Defendant’s Refusal to Submit to a Breath Test Upheld by State Appellate Court

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut did not find that a trial court’s jury instruction on consciousness of guilt, as it related to a defendant’s refusal to submit to a breath test, was improper.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on August 7, 2005. The defendant and his friend spent approximately six hours fishing on Long Island Sound, during which the defendant drank four beers. Approximately an hour later, the defendant drove his friend to Danbury. While returning to his home in Norwalk, the defendant approached a well-marked construction zone that closed down one lane. The defendant swerved into this lane and crashed into a large orange sign, then continued toward the construction site. He nearly struck an off-duty Wilton police officer, who ordered the defendant into a nearby parking lot. The defendant was arrested after he failed multiple field sobriety tests administered by two officers, in conjunction with their observations of the smell of alcohol, glassy and glazed eyes, and disheveled clothing.

At the police station, the defendant was asked to submit to a breath test and advised of his right to counsel. He unsuccessfully attempted to contact an attorney, and then was asked once more to submit to the breath test. Because the defendant again insisted on speaking to an attorney, he was advised that his continued request would be deemed a refusal to take the test, but the defendant persisted. During trial, the judge instructed the jury that the defendant’s conduct may tend to show consciousness of guilt, and “if [the jury found] the defendant did refuse to submit to [the breath test, the jury] may make any reasonable inference that follows from that fact.” The defendant was convicted of operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) in violation of State law. He appealed on multiple grounds, including, in part, the claim that the court improperly instructed the jury that refusing to submit to a breath test could be treated as evidence of consciousness of guilt.

When a court considers a charge of the court, it must determine “whether [the instruction] fairly presents the case to the jury in such a way that injustice is not done to either party.” The instructions are not dissected in a piecemeal fashion; rather, when the challenge to a jury instruction does not raise a constitutional question, the reviewing court will consider its total effect. General Statute § 14-227a, the State’s OMVUI law, includes a subsection that reads, “[T]he court shall instruct the jury as to any inference that may or may not be drawn from the defendant’s refusal to submit to a … breath … test.” In other words, the Connecticut legislature intended for courts to instruct juries on “permissive inferences.”

In this case, the Appellate Court reviewed the language of the jury instruction and determined it was “well within the parameters of § 14-227a.” The court repeatedly told the jury that consciousness of guilt was only a permissive inference; as such, the trial court did not abuse its discretion. The Appellate Court argued that even if the instruction was improper, the defendant failed to provide evidence that it was harmful. The Court noted the amount of evidence, other than the defendant’s refusal, that indicated he was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the incident.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence), an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.