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People v. Garner

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Defendant was charged with vehicular manslaughter when he was driving intoxicated and his car killed a child. The trial court dismissed the vehicular homicide charge on the basis of insufficient probable cause, because Defendant’s driving speed, not his intoxication, proximately caused the child’s death. The State appealed.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    The proximate-cause requirement for a vehicular-manslaughter conviction is satisfied upon a showing that a defendant voluntarily drove while intoxicated, resulting in another’s death.

    Facts.

    Garner (Defendant) was driving when a group of children was preparing to cross the street in front of his truck. All of the children stopped, except for Lisa Uhrenic, who continued to cross the street. Defendant swerved, attempting to avoid the child, but the front, right side of the truck hit and killed her. Defendant was charged with vehicular homicide and driving under the influence. The vehicular-homicide statute, § 18-3-106(1)(b)(I), 8B C.R.S. (1986), provides that a person commits vehicular homicide if he “operates or drives a motor vehicle while under the influence of any drug or intoxicant and such conduct is the proximate cause of the death of another.” Vehicular homicide is designated as a strict liability crime. At a preliminary hearing, evidence established that Defendant was intoxicated and that he was driving about eight miles per hour over the posted speed limit of 35 miles per hour. An officer testified that had Defendant been travelling at the speed limit, his truck would have stopped far sooner after striking Lisa. However, the officer stated that the accident likely would still have occurred, though it was not clear whether Lisa would have died. Another officer testified that he believed the “proximate cause” of the accident was Lisa’s running and crossing in front of the truck, not Defendant’s conduct. Other witnesses stated that Defendant was not driving erratically. The trial court dismissed the vehicular-homicide charge on the basis of insufficient probable cause, because Defendant’s driving speed, not his intoxication, proximately caused Lisa’s death. The State appealed, arguing that the court incorrectly interpreted the phrase “proximate cause” too narrowly, requiring proof that intoxication was the proximate cause of death, not Defendant’s conduct of drunk driving.

    Issue.

    Whether the proximate-cause requirement for a vehicular-manslaughter conviction is satisfied upon a showing that a defendant voluntarily drove while intoxicated, resulting in another’s death.

    Held.

    Yes. The trial court’s dismissal is reversed and the case is remanded to restore the charge.

    Discussion.

    In order to support a vehicular-manslaughter conviction, evidence must only show that a defendant voluntarily drove while intoxicated and that his driving resulted in the victim’s death. There is no additional requirement of establishing that a defendant was driving negligently or that his intoxication made him drive in a way that caused an accident. The legislature’s intention in enacting this strict liability statute is to punish and deter drunk driving. Therefore, the relevant conduct in a proximate-cause determination is only the voluntary act of driving while intoxicated. Thus, the trial court improperly interpreted the “proximate cause” language to require evidence that the intoxication itself caused negligent actions resulting in death. Lisa’s own act of running in front of the truck was not the proximate cause of the collision. Such conduct does not constitute an independent intervening cause, negating the driver’s conduct as the proximate cause of the accident, unless the victim’s conduct was grossly negligent. According to People v. Gentry, 738 P.2d 1188 (Colo. 1987), an intervening cause is one that is unforeseeable and in which the accused does not play a role. If there was an issue regarding whether Lisa acted in a grossly negligent manner, that issue should be decided by the jury and would not affect the finding of proximate cause here. Therefore, the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the vehicular-homicide charge against Defendant.


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