Circumstantial Evidence May Be Enough!

In every operating under the influence (OUI) charge, the Commonwealth needs to prove three essential elements beyond a reasonable doubt. The elements are (1) operation of a motor vehicle, (2) on a public way, and (3) while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs. The Commonwealth has the burden of producing evidence at trial in order to meet the burden of each element. In Commonwealth v. Proia, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that enough circumstantial evidence may amount to proof of operation, and be used in order to prove the operation and impairment elements of the offense.

Commonwealth v. Proia

Proia involves a defendant who rear ended an SUV on Route 495, while traveling at a high rate of speed in his Mercedes. Following the accident, the arresting officers found the Mercedes abandoned in a snow bank further up the road from the accident. The vehicle had sustained serious front end damage with airbags deployed, which had stains consistent with blood on them. The defendant’s driver’s license was also located on the floor of the vehicle. The officers then located the defendant, a mile and a half away in a parking lot outside of a tavern. The defendant had multiple injuries to his face and hands consistent with those one might sustain from an accident, and his shoes and pants were wet from walking in the snow. The Appeals Court ruled that when taken as a whole, this circumstantial evidence may be enough to prove some individual elements of OUI, as explained below.


The element of operation requires the prosecutor to prove that someone was operating or driving a motor vehicle. Operation under the law is not as simple as merely driving a vehicle; it has been defined as when an individual intentionally engages some electrical or mechanical component that could set the vehicle in motion. Operation can be proved through direct evidence, such as when the police see the driver driving the vehicle, or circumstantial evidence, which includes evidence that ties someone to being the operator of the vehicle, as was done in Proia.

In Proia, the Appeals Court ruled that a jury could have found that the defendant was in fact the operator due to his clothes being wet from snow, his being only 30 minutes from the abandoned vehicle, blood at the scene coupled with injuries consistent with a motor vehicle crash, the vehicle being damaged and the fact that the defendant’s license was left in the vehicle. This circumstantial evidence was enough to tie the defendant to being the driver of the car.

While the Appeals Court held that there was enough circumstantial evidence presented in the Proia case, there certainly remain instances where there is simply little or no direct or circumstantial evidence to prove who operated the vehicle in an OUI case. The prosecutor’s evidence must be evaluated in each and every case. If you have been charged with operating under the influence, it is imperative that your case be evaluated to determine whether the prosecution can meet its burden of proof. Contact The Law Offices of Joseph D. Bernard for a free case evaluation today.