Posts tagged with "broad discretion"

Stolen Dealer Plates Found Relevant and Probative in Vehicle Retagging Scheme

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut affirmed a defendant’s conspiracy and larceny convictions, finding that evidence of stolen dealer plates was properly admitted.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on February 4, 2008. Months before, state police began investigating an operation where vehicles stolen in New York were “retagged” and sold in Connecticut. A detective went undercover posing as a buyer and agreed to purchase two stolen vehicles for $20,500. The defendant was present when dealer plates belonging to his previous employer were attached to one car, and he drove the second vehicle to the exchange point in Fairfield. Police moved in and arrested the defendant and several other individuals involved. Troopers observed materials used in the retagging process on the defendant’s person, as well as inside nearby vehicles driven by coconspirators.

The defendant was charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit larceny in the first degree and two counts of larceny in the first degree. Prior to trial, the defendant filed a motion seeking to exclude evidence of the stolen dealer plates. He argued that it was irrelevant, and the probative value, if any, was far outweighed by the prejudicial effect it would have on the jury. The State countered that such evidence went to intent and to show the defendant was a knowing participant in the conspiracy rather than an unwitting passenger.

The court allowed the evidence and attendant testimony, noting it was relevant to a material fact in the case. Thus, for example, a detective “opined that, based on her training and experience, a former employee would have better access than a stranger to the dealer plates because of his familiarity with the dealership and the knowledge of its layout.” The defendant was subsequently found guilty on all counts and appealed his convictions, arguing that evidence of the dealer plates was improperly admitted because it was not relevant, and alternatively that it was unfairly prejudicial.

To convict a defendant of conspiracy under Connecticut General Statutes § 53a-48, the State must show that an agreement to commit a crime was made between two or more people, one of whom acts overtly to further the conspiracy. This is a specific intent crime, and the State must prove that the conspirators “intended to agree and that they intended to commit the elements of the underlying offense.” Because it is difficult to ascertain a person’s subjective intent, it is often inferred from circumstantial evidence and rational inferences. Evidence is relevant so long as it has a “logical tendency to aid [the judge or jury] in the determination of an issue” to even the slightest degree, so long as it is not unduly prejudicial or merely cumulative.

In this case, the Appellate Court found that the dealer plates “had a logical tendency to show a connection between the defendant and the larcenous scheme,” as well as the requisite intent to commit conspiracy to commit larceny. Indeed, this evidence countered the defendant’s assertion that he was an innocent bystander. While the evidence itself might have been weak, this was an issue of its weight, not its relevance. Therefore, the trial court did not abuse its discretion by allowing it.

There are many grounds for excluding relevant evidence, such as the risk of unfair prejudice. Naturally, all evidence against the defendant is damaging and thus prejudicial, so the appropriate inquiry is whether the proffered evidence will “improperly arouse the emotions of the jury.” In this case, the defendant argued that the jury may have concluded that the dealer plates, which belonged to his previous employer, were stolen, a fact which they would then impermissibly use to infer he committed the presently charged offenses. The Appellate Court stated that while such impermissible inferences may have been drawn, the trial court has broad discretion in weighing the probative value versus prejudicial impact, a decision reversible only upon showing an abuse of discretion or manifest injustice. Based on the facts of this case, the Court could not conclude that the trial court abused its discretion; therefore, the defendant’s claims on appeal failed.

When faced with a charge of larceny, burglary, conspiracy, or attempt, 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.

“Mommy Just Got Into a Little Accident,” Along With Other Evidence, Was Sufficient to Find That DUI Driver Operated her Car

In a recent criminal law matter, a Superior Court of Connecticut dismissed the plaintiff’s license suspension appeal, stating that the hearing officer had sufficient evidence to find that the plaintiff “operated” her motor vehicle.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on December 12, 2010. Police responded to a complaint from a woman (neighbor), who stated that the plaintiff’s vehicle backed out of her driveway across the street and struck her car. Officers proceeded up the driveway in question and saw the plaintiff, who was accompanied by her four-year-old son, “fumbling with her keys and struggling to keep her balance as she attempted to open her garage.” The plaintiff was visibly intoxicated, and when the officer asked the son what happened, he responded, “Mommy just got into a little accident.” Officers believed the plaintiff was so inebriated that administering the field sobriety tests would be unsafe. They arrested the plaintiff and transported her to police headquarters, where two breath tests revealed blood alcohol contents of 0.2181 and 0.2097, two-and-a-half times the legal limit. A subsequent inspection of the plaintiff’s vehicle revealed damage consistent with that from the neighbor’s car.

The plaintiff was charged with driving under the influence in violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) § 14-227a. The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) sent her a notice of suspension, and she requested an administrative hearing. The hearing officer made four statutory findings pursuant to CGS § 14-227b(g), and given the plaintiff’s history of suspensions, ordered that her license be suspended for two years and six months. The plaintiff appealed, stating that the hearing officer’s conclusion on the fourth criteria of CGS § 14-227b(g), “operation,” was without factual support. She contested the neighbor’s identification of her as the driver and use of her son’s hearsay statement, as well as the fact that police did not see her driving.

When a plaintiff contests the decision of a DMV hearing officer, they have the burden of proving that the decision was arbitrary and an abuse of discretion. A decision that is reasonably supported by the evidence will be sustained by a reviewing court. In addition, hearing officers have broad discretion in accepting or discrediting witness testimony, and are not bound to the strict rules of evidence regarding hearsay. Therefore, hearing officers have the authority to rely on hearsay of operation so long as the testimony is relevant and material to that finding.

In this case, the Superior Court found that the hearing officer had ample evidence that the plaintiff operated her car. The officers personally saw the plaintiff in possession of her keys outside the garage in which her car was located. Given the coinciding damage between both cars, along with the neighbor’s and son’s statements, which the hearing officer was free to accept, there was sufficient evidence to find that the plaintiff operated her motor vehicle. Therefore, the hearing officer did not abuse his discretion, and after addressing the plaintiff’s additional claims, the Superior Court dismissed her appeal.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, 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.

Plaintiff’s Lawsuit Against Commissioner of Department of Motor Vehicles Barred by State’s Sovereign Immunity; Plaintiff Failed to Prove Any Exceptions Applied

In a recent criminal law matter, the Superior Court of Connecticut, Judicial District of Fairfield at Bridgeport dismissed a plaintiff’s action against the defendant Commissioner of the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), because she was barred under sovereign immunity doctrine from bringing suit.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on or about July 11, 2006. The plaintiff was arrested for operating a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol in violation of General Statutes § 14-227a, and she refused to submit to an alcohol chemical test. The plaintiff pled guilty to this charge, and in light of two previous OMVUI convictions, her license was suspended for a year and she would be required to install an interlocking ignition device (IID) in her vehicle. The plaintiff received a revised suspension notice from the DMV stating her license would instead be suspended for three years because of her refusal to submit to the chemical test. In addition, the plaintiff would not be able to make use of the IID. See General Statutes § 14-227b(i)(3)(C).

The plaintiff filed motions with the court, asking it to enjoin the defendant from suspending her license beyond the initial one-year period. The plaintiff argued that the defendant exceeded his statutory authority and, as such, violated her constitutional rights. In its motion to dismiss, the defendant countered that the court did not have subject matter jurisdiction because of the state’s sovereign immunity. He pointed out that the plaintiff did not seek declaratory or injunctive relief “based on a substantial claim that the state or its officials have violated [her] constitutional rights or that the state or its officials have acted in excess of their statutory authority.”

Sovereign immunity doctrine holds that a State cannot be sued unless it authorizes or consents to suit. There are only three statutory exceptions to this rule: waiver, violation of a plaintiff’s constitutional right by a state official, and action in excess of a state official’s statutory authority which violates a plaintiff’s right. If the second exception is asserted, State action will survive strict scrutiny analysis only if it is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. In this case, the Superior Court found “little dispute” that highway safety is a compelling state interest and that the increased suspension and IID refusal was “both reasonable and necessary to achieve the goal of protecting the public safety.” Therefore, the Court found that the plaintiff’s constitutional rights were not violated.

Regarding the third exception, the DMV Commissioner has very broad discretion “to oversee and control the operation of motor vehicles generally.” Public policy concerns underpinning our motor vehicle laws center on the protection of the lives and property of Connecticut’s citizens. The legislature has also recognized the heavy burden placed on those convicted of OMVUI “in a society dependent on automotive transportation.” The use of IIDs helps alleviate these burdens, but it is a privilege of limited application, which does not encompass suspensions based on refusing to submit to an alcohol chemical test. In this case, the Superior Court found that the defendant “clearly” had statutory authority to impose the three-year suspension and refuse the plaintiff’s request to use an IID. Therefore, because the plaintiff failed to establish the applicability of either exception, the Superior Court held her action was barred by the State’s sovereign immunity.

When faced with a charge of operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated (a.k.a. driving under the influence) or license suspension, 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.

Court Denies Bail to Repeated DUI Offender

In a recent criminal law matter, a Superior Court of Connecticut considered a defendant’s motion to be released on bond pending the appeal of his conviction of three counts of operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence (OMVUI) of alcohol.

In this case, the defendant was a self-described victim of the disease of alcoholism, and was first convicted of OMVUI on December 15, 2008. Less than a month later, the defendant was involved in accidents where his blood alcohol content (BAC) exceeded 0.23, and he was again charged and convicted of an additional two counts of DUI. Pursuant to a plea agreement, the defendant was sentenced on all three counts, one as a first-time offender, and two as second-time. On January 20, 2009, the defendant filed a motion to vacate, arguing he should have been charged and sentenced as a first-time offender on all three counts, but this motion was denied. The defendant then filed a motion to be released on bond pending his appeal.

Under Connecticut law, there is no constitutional or statutory right to bail. It is subject to the broad discretion of the trial court, and is “rarely allowed when the crime is serious.” Our legislature has characterized OMVUI as a serious offense, as evidenced by increased penalties including mandatory minimum sentences and fines. In this case, the defendant repeatedly operated his car while under the influence with extremely high BACs. “To release the defendant on bail would place the general public at risk of harm from the defendant.” In addition, because the defendant failed to appear in court, custody was necessary to provide “reasonable assurance” that he would appear for his court date. Therefore, the defendant’s motion for release on bond was denied.

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.