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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Cmelik Law PLC

Cedar Rapids DUI Lawyer: Circumstantial vs. Direct Evidence

A criminal jury can convict a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, DUI defendant—called Operating While Intoxicated in Iowa, or, OWI— only upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was operating a motor vehicle while under the influence. But what does it mean when that criminal case is largely “circumstantial?”

We’ve heard the phrase on crime TV dramas: the case is largely circumstantial. All our lives, our common sense has elevated direct evidence—things we or others see or know to be true from direct observation—over circumstantial evidence in a criminal court of law. Nevertheless, in Iowa, the model criminal jury instructions instruct juries that the value of direct evidence and circumstantial evidence are equal:

“Facts may be proved by direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, or both. Direct evidence is evidence from a witness who claims actual knowledge of a fact, such as an eyewitness. Circumstantial evidence is evidence about a chain of facts which show a defendant is guilty or not guilty. The law makes no distinction between direct evidence and circumstantial evidence. Give all the evidence the weight and value you think it is entitled to receive.”

Sometimes, police and prosecutors try to make a case that the registered owner of an abandoned or disabled car drove drunk if they also find that person nearby. Strong circumstantial evidence suggests, goes the police theory, that the pedestrian drove their own car into a light pole while intoxicated and then walked away only to have Officer Friendly confront them with their obvious guilt. After all, who else could have been driving that car drunk but the registered owner?

To put a fine point on the value of such circumstantial evidence, prosecutors like to discuss it in jury selection. It seems like every other jury I helped pick as a young criminal defense lawyer had a prosecutor on the other side who used snowfall to explain circumstantial evidence. The analogy goes something like this: you see the weather forecast on the 10 O’Clock news that it will snow in the night. The forecaster says to expect an inch of snowfall when you get up in the morning. When you do rise for your morning coffee, you see a blanket of snow. The criminal prosecutor describes the snow cover as circumstantial evidence that it snowed last night. Even though the jurors did not see the snow fall, they can trust that it did so because of the circumstantial blanket of snow lying on the ground and their common sense about the nature of gravity and weather. This argument always made me want to rent an artificial snow machine and park it out on the courthouse square—like the ones they use at ski slopes. I would sometimes discuss that idea with jurors and suggest that an idyllic blanket of snow is no way to decide between two equally compelling hypotheses from the circumstantial evidence.

Recently, Justice MacDonald addressed the equivalence the court has historically drawn between direct and circumstantial evidence in a discrimination case unrelated to the criminal law.

“Of course, [c]ircumstantial and direct evidence are equally probative,” wrote Justice MacDonald, citing to a 1984 case. “However,” he wrote, “circumstantial evidence is sufficient to establish a fact only where the evidence has sufficient force to allow a factfinder to draw a legitimate inference from the evidence presented,” adding “[a] legitimate inference drawn from circumstantial evidence must be ‘rational, reasonable, and otherwise permissible under the governing substantive law.’”

How this evidentiary ruling applies to criminal cases is unclear—primarily because it was a Supreme Court decision regarding summary judgment in a civil discrimination case—not a criminal prosecution.

Nevertheless, the evolving Iowa Supreme Court scrutiny of circumstantial evidence appears consistent with the model Iowa criminal jury instruction that allows jurors to give as much—or as little—weight to circumstantial evidence as they see fit, a jury may reject some or all of the circumstantial evidence a prosecutor beliefs sufficient to convict the defendant in a criminal OWI/DUI prosecution.

If you’re searching for the best Cedar Rapids lawyer for your criminal or DUI defense, contact us for a free initial consultation. We’d love to be on your list.


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