Accident or Crime?
Last week, I tried a case where a client was accused of four crimes stemming from one auto accident. The charges included intoxication manslaughter and intoxication assault. Our client was accused of drinking, driving, and then causing an “accident” because of intoxication. Unfortunately, lots of people die in auto collisions or “accidents.” Drivers run red lights, fail to stop at stop signs, speed, text while driving, fail to yield the right of way, or do other things that cause auto accidents. When do those “accidents” become crimes?
In civil cases, injured parties often claim an accident was caused by the negligence of the other driver. “Negligence” is essentially the failure to use ordinary care. What would a person of ordinary prudence do? An ordinary prudent person follows the rules of the road. A negligent person does not keep a proper lookout for other drivers, speeds, fails to observe traffic signs or traffic signals, and/or fails to control their speed. In a negligence case, it is not necessary to prove someone intended to cause a collision or cause an injury to someone.
In a criminal case, a person must act recklessly or cause an accident because of intoxication. To be “reckless,” a person must know a serious risk is involved in an activity and the risk is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury. A reckless person knows firing a gun into the air in a crowd will likely result in a bullet coming down and striking someone in the crowd. While not intending to harm someone, the person’s reckless conduct will result in a crime if someone is injured.
Similarly, it is against the law to drive while intoxicated. Intoxication can be proved by showing a driver had a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 or more or by proving the person lost the normal use of their physical or mental faculties by consuming alcohol. If someone is intoxicated and involved in an accident, the accident can become criminal in nature if the intoxication CAUSED the collision.
Science tells us that consuming alcohol, slows our response time, affects our judgment, impairs our hearing and sight and otherwise interferes with the safe operation of our vehicles. To convict someone of intoxication assault or intoxication manslaughter, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the intoxication CAUSED the accident. In effect, the state must prove the person’s intoxication left the person in such a state of intoxication that the intoxication left the driver so impaired that the person drove a motor vehicle in a way that caused the accident. The intoxication kept someone from timely applying their brakes, from following the speed limit, from staying in their lane, from yielding to traffic with the right of way, or many other failures. Holding the state to this burden is a difficult task.
It is important in these cases to find an attorney who has experience in trial and confronting prosecutors who often miss the step of showing the “causal relationship” between intoxication and the accident. For example, if an intoxicated driver is in an accident because the other driver ran the red light, rear-ended the intoxicated driver who was stopped at a stop sign or is not the CAUSE of the collision, the accident is not a crime and charges for intoxication manslaughter or intoxication assault should be dismissed. Otherwise, a defendant can proceed to trial and make the state try to prove its allegations with competent evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.