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State v. Byrne

Superior Court of Delaware

April 27, 2017

FRANCIS E. BYRNE, Defendant.

          Submitted: March 8, 2017

          Dominic A. Carrera, Jr., Esquire, Deputy Attorney General Edmund Daniel Lyons, Esquire


          Paul R. Wallace, Judge.

         This 27th day of April, 2017, having considered Defendant Francis E. Byrne's Motion for Judgment of Acquittal (D.I. 24); the State's Response thereto (D.I. 27); Defendant Byrne's Reply (D.I. 28); and the record in this matter; it appears to the Court that:

         (1) On September 1, 2016, Delaware State Police arrested Defendant Francis E. Byrne ("Byrne") for multiple charges stemming from a traffic stop conducted that same evening.

         (2) After a one-day trial, on February 23, 2017, a unanimous jury found Byrne guilty of Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol ("DUI"); Aggressive Driving; Speeding; Failure to Maintain Lane; Improper Signaling; and Following a Motor Vehicle Too Closely.[1] Byrne has filed a timely Motion for Judgment of Acquittal under Superior Court Criminal Rule 29(c) alleging insufficiency of the evidence.[2]

         (3) Specifically, Byrne argues that the State failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he was "impaired by alcohol."[3] Noting that he was only convicted under an impairment theory, Byrne contends that the evidence presented at trial was "not sufficient to support any rational jury's finding of alcohol causation beyond a reasonable doubt."[4]

         (4) The State counters that the evidence, both direct and circumstantial, when viewed in the light most favorable to its case, was sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to convict the defendant.[5]

         (5) A brief recounting of the evidence relevant to this motion follows. On the evening of September 1, 2016, Corporal Andrew Pietlock ("Cpl. Pietlock") of the Delaware State Police was in a fully marked police car patrolling northbound Route 202 in North Wilmington. He there saw Byrne's black Nissan pickup truck traveling at a high rate of speed, making several unsafe lane changes both with and without a turn signal, cutting off other drivers, and tailgating far too closely behind others. After observing these traffic infractions, Cpl. Pietlock was able to use moving radar to determine that Byrne was traveling at approximately 70 miles per hour in a posted 45 mile-per-hour zone. Cpl. Pietlock activated his emergency lights and Byrne pulled over into a parking lot, though not immediately.

         (6) Cpl. Pietlock went to the driver's door of Byrne's pickup and asked for Byrne's identification and proof of insurance. As he was speaking to Byrne, the trooper smelled alcohol coming from the vehicle and took notice of Byrne's glassy, bloodshot eyes and slurred speech. Cpl. Pietlock asked Byrne if he had been drinking that evening. Byrne told him that he thought he had had just two beers approximately 30 minutes before being pulled over.

         (7) At this point, Cpl. Pietlock had Byrne exit the pickup to perform sobriety tests. While alighting from the cab, Cpl. Pietlock noticed that Byrne had difficulty maintaining his balance and it appeared that he had urinated in his pants. Cpl. Pietlock instructed Byrne to complete several standard field sobriety tests designed to indicate impairment. After administering four different sobriety tests, Cpl. Pietlock characterized Byrne's performance as failures for all tests. He concluded that Byrne was impaired. At this point, Cpl. Pietlock arrested Byrne and transported him to Troop 1 where Byrne took an Intoxilyzer test.

         (8) At trial, the State presented evidence of that Intoxilyzer test. Byrne produced an alcohol concentration of .177 grams per 210 liters of breath - more than twice the legal limit. Based upon this test result, the failed field sobriety tests, and his prior observations of Byrne, Cpl. Pietlock cited him for DUI and other charges.

         (9) After all evidence was presented at trial, Byrne made an oral Motion for Judgment of Acquittal, contending that the State presented insufficient evidence for the jury to properly consider the DUI charge. The Court heard arguments from the parties outside the presence of the jury and subsequently denied the Motion, finding that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to properly consider the DUI count. Byrne was convicted of DUI under 21 Del. C. § 4177(a)(1)[6] and numerous other traffic charges.

         (10) A criminal defendant must meet a high bar to succeed on a Motion for Judgment of Acquittal under Superior Court Criminal Rule 29.[7] The Court may enter a judgment of acquittal on a specific count only if "the evidence is insufficient to sustain a conviction of such offense."[8] When evaluating the motion, the Court considers the evidence, "together with all legitimate inferences therefrom . . . from the point of view most favorable to the State."[9] "[T]he standard of review is 'whether any rational trier of fact, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the State, could find [the defendant] guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of all the elements of the crime.'"[10] "For purposes of reviewing a claim of insufficient evidence there is no distinction between direct and circumstantial evidence."[11]

         (11) To prove Byrne's guilt as to Driving Under the Influence of Alcohol, the State had to demonstrate he was: (a) driving a motor vehicle; (b) when he was under the influence of alcohol.[12]

         (12) One is under the influence for the purposes of § 4177(a)(1), when the "person is, because of alcohol. . ., less able than the person would ordinarily have been, either mentally or physically, to exercise clear judgement, sufficient physical control, or due care in the driving of a vehicle."[13] The State is not required to establish the driver was "drunk" or "intoxicated."[14] "Nor is it required that impaired ability to drive be demonstrated by particular acts of unsafe driving."[15] Under Delaware law, "[a] chemical test is not necessary to prove [the] impairment" required by the statute.[16] The State may meet its burden by producing circumstantial evidence of alcohol's influence, and a jury may properly infer that influence from the defendant's conduct, demeanor, and statements.[17] And the State may present lay or other probative testimony to establish the defendant was under the influence of alcohol as defined by Delaware's statute.[18] Lastly, ...

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