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Owens v. State

    Brief Fact Summary. The Defendant Owens was convicted of driving while intoxicated after he was found unconscious in a vehicle with its motor running.

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

    Facts. A police officer responded to a complaint of a suspicious vehicle. When he arrived on the scene, he found the Defendant unconscious behind the wheel of his truck. The truck’s engine was running, and its lights were on. Between the Defendant’s legs was an open can of beer. There were two other empty beer cans in the vehicle. The trooper stated that the Defendant smelled of alcohol, slurred his speech, and could not recite the alphabet. No eyewitness actually saw the Defendant driving his vehicle. The judge, sitting without a jury, convicted the Defendant of driving while intoxicated, and this appeal followed.

    Issue. Is the Defendant’s conviction based on legally sufficient evidence?

    Held. Yes. Conviction affirmed.
    “[A] conviction upon circumstantial evidence alone is not to be sustained unless the circumstances are inconsistent with any reasonable hypothesis of innocence.” In other words, where the conviction is based solely on circumstantial evidence, without eyewitness testimony, the conviction cannot stand if the circumstances also can be explained by any reasonable means.

    Here, the Defendant was passed out behind the wheel of a vehicle with its motor running. Either he drove to the spot where he was found or he had just gotten into the vehicle, started it up, and passed out before he could drive. The latter proposition, however, is not a reasonable hypothesis.

    The presence of beer cans in the car leads one to conclude that he had been drinking in the car, and it is not reasonable for a person to leave his house, get in the car, start the engine, drink beer, and then pass out. Further, the car only contained three beers, which probably were not enough to induce unconsciousness, so the drinking is more likely to be at its end rather than the beginning.


    Discussion. A conviction upon circumstantial evidence alone must be scrutinized to determine whether the circumstances are consistent with a reasonable hypothesis of guilt. This case may have been decided differently if the Defendant was outside his vehicle at the time the police arrived.


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