Appeals Court upholds admission of hospital blood records in OUI conviction

Entire decision may be found at Commonwealth v. Dyer.

The Appeals court recently upheld the conviction of a defendant for motor vehicle homicide. Defendant Sean Dyer was convicted after crashing a car and killing his friend Cassandra Donovan. On appeal, He challenged the admission in evidence of medical records revealing his blood alcohol content level and certain physician testimony regarding the defendant’s level of intoxication.

At about 7:30 P.M. on January 21, 2005, defendant Sean Dyer, then eighteen years old, picked up his friends in his father’s car to attend a drinking party in Woburn. At around 11 P. M., he drove to a 7-Eleven store parking lot to meet seventeen year old Cassandra Donovan (victim). While awaiting her arrival, the defendant encountered a friend, Nicholas Benson, to whom the defendant appeared “really, really drunk.” According to Benson, the defendant told him that he had attended a party and had consumed “a lot of beers” and had had “a real lot to drink.” Benson offered to drive the defendant, but he refused. Shortly thereafter, the victim arrived and joined the defendant, who “slammed [the car] into drive” and spun the tire wheels as he sped out of the lot.
About ten minutes later, the defendant’s vehicle collided with a telephone pole; the impact caused severe damage to the passenger’s side of the vehicle but little to the driver’s side. Although the defendant suffered no apparent harm, the victim, who was trapped within the vehicle, sustained severe injuries, was unresponsive, and bled profusely from the head.

Just after the crash, two teenagers happened upon the accident and observed that the defendant appeared very confused. One of the teenagers, who detected an odor of alcohol emanating from within the vehicle, testified that the defendant admitted that he had “had a few.” Soon afterward, police and rescue workers arrived. At least two officers noticed that the defendant smelled strongly of alcohol and that he stumbled and was unsteady on his feet. In response to the officers’ questions, the defendant denied driving the vehicle and refused to reveal the victim’s identity.

Rescue workers arrived at the scene and viewed the defendant sitting or standing at the curb. From their observation of the extensive damage to the vehicle and of the severity of the injuries to the victim, they suspected the defendant to be a potential trauma victim requiring the protocol of a thorough physical examination at the hospital. They immobilized him on a stretcher and placed him in an ambulance.

Both the defendant and the victim were transported to the Massachusetts General Hospital (hospital). There, the victim died at about 2 A.M. Both en route to and at the hospital, the defendant was agitated and was described as exhibiting “combative” and “standoffish” behavior. Emergency room physician-supervisor Dr. Kriti Bhatia treated the defendant, along with a team of about five or six emergency room physicians, nurses, and medical technicians. She noticed that the defendant’s breath smelled of alcohol and that he was alert but disoriented as to time. She ordered urine and blood tests in addition to X-rays and computer tomography (CT) scans for his evaluation and treatment. Emergency room personnel drew five vials of the defendant’s blood and forwarded them to the hospital’s laboratory. The hospital analysis revealed that the defendant’s blood alcohol content by weight was .17 percent. G.L. c. 90, § 24G(a ).

On January 25, 2005, the police obtained a warrant for the defendant’s hospital records and the remaining vials of blood drawn. On the next day, they transferred the vials to the State police crime laboratory (crime lab). Analysis of the defendant’s blood showed a blood alcohol level of .11 percent. The discrepancy between the hospital’s result of .17 percent and the crime laboratory’s .11 percent may have resulted from improper capping of the vial.

At the conclusion of trial, a Superior Court jury found the defendant guilty of felony motor vehicle homicide.

The Defendant argued that the admission of his blood alcohol content was improper and violated his right of confrontation under the United States and Massachusetts Constitutions because the analyst responsible for processing the hospital blood sample was unavailable for cross-examination. However, because the blood alcohol content result was not testimonial, the defendant’s right of confrontation suffered no breach. He was not entitled to cross-examine the analyst responsible for it.

At trial, Dr. Bhatia explained her role in the emergency room and her approach to evaluation and treatment of the defendant when he arrived at the hospital. As chief resident of the emergency room, she oversaw the entire emergency department and acted as the “trauma captain, … in charge of the entire evaluation of the patient.” She stated that she “coordinates the entire team [of emergency physicians, nurses, and other medical technicians] in terms of taking care of the patient and plans the tests that are necessary, diagnostic tests, both radiographically as well as laboratory wise.”

Based upon hospital trauma protocol, information of possible alcohol involvement, and her own clinical observations of a patient, she would order a series of CT scans and blood work as the normal course of treatment for a trauma patient in the circumstance presented by this case. Finally, she confirmed that no police officers were present in the emergency room during the evaluation and treatment of the defendant. She elaborated further that she would refuse to conduct any medical test or procedure if so requested or ordered by a police officer because her role is limited to offering medical care to her patients.

Since the right of confrontation presented no bar to the admission of the hospital’s blood alcohol test result without confrontation of an analyst, it was admissible under G.L. c. 233, § 79. The statute provides, “Records kept by hospitals [as required by statute] … may be admitted … as evidence in the courts of the commonwealth so far as such records relate to the treatment and medical history of such cases.” The statute “in effect provides an exception to the hearsay rule which allows hospital records to be admitted to prove the truth of the facts contained therein, in so far as those facts relate to treatment and medical history.” As Dr. Bhatia’s testimony demonstrates, she utilized the blood alcohol content test results exclusively for her medical evaluation and treatment of the defendant. Hospital records of blood tests showing intoxication levels have been routinely admitted in prosecutions for operating under the influence of intoxicating liquor.

The defendant next contended that the judge should have excluded Dr. Bhatia’s (1) testimony on direct examination that the defendant’s blood alcohol content of .17 percent was consistent with her “physical observations of the defendant with respect to alcohol consumption,” and (2) testimony on redirect examination that the blood draw and analysis performed at the hospital were neither “improper” nor “wrong.” The defendant also challenges her qualification as an expert witness upon the subject of the blood draw and analysis.
The court found no error in Dr. Bhatia’s testimony. First, the trial judge properly allowed her testimony about the significance of the blood alcohol content result and its consistency with her observation of the defendant. As an experienced emergency room physician, she was qualified to interpret such tests and was familiar with the signs of intoxication displayed by the defendant. Second, the trial judge properly allowed her to testify to the propriety of the blood draw and analysis based on her own observations, knowledge of the hospital protocols, and her review of the medical records. (“[Medical] examiners, as expert witnesses, may base their opinions on (1) facts personally observed; (2) evidence already in the records or which the parties represent will be admitted during the course of the proceedings, assumed to be true in questions put to the expert witnesses; and (3) facts or data not in evidence if the facts or data are independently admissible and are a permissible basis for an expert to consider in formulating an opinion”) (citations and internal quotation marks omitted). Finally, the defendant has made no attack upon Dr. Bhatia’s qualifications substantial enough to call into question the admissibility of her opinions.

Conclusion. The trial judge’s admission of the defendant’s blood alcohol content produced by the hospital did not violate the defendant’s right of confrontation. The judge properly allowed Dr. Bhatia’s testimony about the defendant’s appearance and the quality of the hospital’s blood work.

About Attorney John J. MacLaughlan

John MacLaughlan is Massachusetts licensed attorney as well as a Boston police officer. John is currently assigned to the Youth Violence Strike Force (Gang Unit). He is a graduate of the Massachusetts School of Law with a concentration in Labor Law. He holds a Master’s Degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well as a Bachelors Degree in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. John has taught Defensive Tactics, Firearms, Use of Force, Applied Patrol Procedures, and Police Response to Active Shooters to sworn police officers and police academy recruits. Prior to becoming a Boston Police Officer, John served for 9 years as a police officer in Lowell, where he was a member of the Police Dive Team and Patrol Rifle Team.
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