Owens v. State

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland, 1992.

93 Md.App.  162, 611 A.2d 1043.

Dressler, p. 14-17.


Facts: Owens was found by a state trooper passed out drunk in his truck with the lights on and the motor running.  He was found guilty of driving while intoxicated.  He appealed on the basis that the evidence provided at trial was not sufficient to convict him.


Issue: Are the circumstances of the case inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence?


Rule: “[A] conviction on circumstantial evidence alone is not to be sustained unless the circumstances are inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.”


Analysis: The court reasons that there are only two reasonable conclusions that can be drawn from the scene that the state trooper discovered.


1.     The defendant had just finished driving drunk.

2.     The defendant was about to drive drunk.


The first conclusion would result in finding the defendant guilty, while the second conclusion would result in finding the defendant innocent.


The court argues that in order for Owens to be found guilty, there must be some factor that makes the first conclusion more likely.


The court finds some difficulty because very little evidence was presented in the case.  For example, the court cannot consider the fact that Owens’s driver’s license lists his address as a different address than the one of the driveway at which he was found.  This was not introduced as evidence at trial, so the court can’t look at it on appeal.


The court presents facts that it says give weight to the first conclusion:


1.     The defendant was on at least his third beer.  Thus, it is argued, it’s more likely he was near the end of his drinking than the beginning of his drinking.

2.     The defendant was unconscious when found by the trooper.  This is further evidence that he had been drinking for some time.

3.     Somebody called in a report of a suspicious vehicle.  Presumably, they wouldn’t have done this if the vehicle had been parked in a private driveway at the time.


Conclusion: The court affirmed the conviction.


Notes and Questions


1.     In the absence of specific instructions, I think I would have voted to convict based on the logic that he either did it or didn’t do it, and if it’s impossible that he didn’t do it, he must have done it.  But let’s consider the various sets of jury instructions.

a.      Moral Certainty – With these instructions, I would convict, because I would feel that though I experience possible doubt, I don’t experience reasonable doubt.

b.     Firmly Convinced – On these instructions, assuming I followed them, I may vote to acquit because I am unsure whether I am “firmly convinced”.  I think I would also have to concede that there is a “real possibility” the defendant is not guilty.

c.     No Waver or Vacillation – I find myself wavering in my conviction of guilt, but then again, maybe I only waver while I’m considering the evidence rather than after I considered the evidence.  Also, my doubts seem rather “speculative” or merely “possible”.  It would be close, but I think I would vote to convict.

d.     No Hesitation – the language about being “willing to rely and act upon [the proof of guilt] without hesitation” in my own affairs would sway me to vote to convict.  I’m personally satisfied from the evidence presented that the defendant is guilty to the point that I would stake something of my own interests on my belief.

2.     This sounds suspiciously like “preponderance of the evidence” rather than “beyond a reasonable doubt” to me.  However, it seems as though it may be in line with the court’s logic overall.  If conviction cannot be sustained on circumstantial evidence alone unless there is no reasonable hypothesis of innocence, then if you show the only possible hypothesis is not reasonable, you can sustain a conviction.  But I think there may be a subtle logical fallacy here: the rule doesn’t say that you must convict if there’s no reasonable hypothesis of innocence.  It only says that you must not sustain a conviction based on circumstantial evidence where there is a reasonable hypothesis of innocence.  The court could have still overturned this verdict on the grounds that the hypothesis consistent with guilt was not proven at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.

3.     Dressler covers the circumstances under which a judge may grant a motion for a directed verdict.  This is how the trial judge makes sure the presumption of innocence is enforced.

4.     If we assume that the trial court resolved the conflict between the two hypotheses in favor of the prosecution, it is actually easier to affirm the conviction, because we don’t need to say that the verdict was correct “beyond a reasonable doubt”, but only that “a rational trier of fact could reasonably have reached the result that it did”.


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