Category Archives: Vehicular Homicide

Fourth of July is One of the Deadliest Days For Drunk Driving

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Excellent news article by reporter German Lopez of Vox discusses how the Fourth of July is among the deadliest days for drunk driving every year, thanks to people both drinking and driving more.

According to an analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety using data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System, between 2010 and 2014, July 4 had the second highest percent of car crash deaths that were linked to alcohol, and July 3 was also in the top 10.

Lopez gives a scale on how the 10 deadliest days broke down, with the percentage noting how many of the car crash deaths involved a blood alcohol level of 0.08 g/dL or more:

  1. January 1: 62 percent (364 of 591 car crash deaths)
  2. July 4: 47 percent (278 of 592 car crash deaths)
  3. December 24: 41 percent (191 of 461 car crash deaths)
  4. February 6: 41 percent (151 of 366 car crash deaths)
  5. July 24: 41 percent (207 of 502 car crash deaths)
  6. July 3: 41 percent (219 of 533 car crash deaths)
  7. March 9: 41 percent (161 of 396 car crash deaths)
  8. December 25: 41 percent (137 of 338 car crash deaths)
  9. April 21: 40 percent (176 of 435 car crash deaths)
  10. April 17: 40 percent (176 of 438 car crash deaths)

Also, Lopez reported that although drunk driving deaths have plummeted over the past few decades. In 1981, drunk driving killed more than 21,000 people. By 2015, that figure was cut in half. An array of reforms played a big role in that reduction, including raising the legal alcohol age to 21, pushing police to take the enforcement of drunk driving laws much more seriously, and general improvements in car and traffic safety.

But much of that action happened in the 1980s and ’90s, when MADD and other advocacy groups came together in a strong, well-funded effort to take drunk driving more seriously. Since then, the issue has fallen off the national radar.

 Alcohol’s problems extend far beyond drunk driving as well. Alcohol is linked to at least 88,000 deaths in the US each year, only about an eighth of which are driving-related. That estimate comes from 2006 through 2010, but more recent data suggests that at least some alcohol deaths are trending up: Between 2010 and 2015, the number of alcohol-induced deaths (those that involve direct health complications from alcohol, like liver cirrhosis) rose from less than 26,000 to more than 33,000.

Based on the research, there is also a lot more that America could be doing to prevent alcohol-related deaths — yet there is little media or public attention to this issue, so there is little pressure for lawmakers to put this research into action. The result is that one of the big causes of death in America continues to kill thousands of people a year.

DEALING WITH INCREASED DEATH TOLLS RELATED TO ALCOHOL ABUSE.

Lopez points out that when Americans think about alcohol policy, the first thing that comes to mind is probably Prohibition, which effectively banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933. That solution, of course, did not work. Still, Lopez suggests the following other policies could help address the negative safety impacts of drinking.

  • A higher alcohol tax: A 2010 review of the research in the American Journal of Public Health came out with strong findings: “Our results suggest that doubling the alcohol tax would reduce alcohol-related mortality by an average of 35%, traffic crash deaths by 11%, sexually transmitted disease by 6%, violence by 2%, and crime by 1.4%.”
  • Reducing the number of alcohol outlets: A 2009 review published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine also found that limiting the number of alcohol outlets (such as liquor stores) in an area through stricter licensing, for example, can limit problematic drinking and its dangers. But it also found that going too far can have negative results — by, for example, causing more car crashes as people take longer drives to outlets and possibly drink before returning home.
  • Revoking alcohol offenders’ right to drink: South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety programeffectively revokes people’s right to drink if a court deems it necessary after an alcohol-related offense. The program, specifically, monitors offenders through twice-a-day breathalyzer tests or a bracelet that can track blood alcohol level, and jails them for one or two days for each failed test. Studies from the RAND Corporation have linked the program to drops in mortality, DUI arrests, and domestic violence arrests.
  • Put state governments in charge of selling alcohol: A 2014 report from RAND concluded that when state governments monopolize alcohol sales through state-run shops, they can keep prices higher, reduce access to youth, and reduce overall levels of use.

These are just a few of the ideas that experts have put out there. There are many more ways to curtail alcohol consumption and misuse without outright banning it.

Maybe these policies still go too far for some people. Different individuals will likely disagree on whether these proposals go too far in restricting personal liberty, even if they do save some lives. But the research suggests such policies are at least worth considering.

Yet lawmakers have paid very little attention to alcohol policy. As Philip Cook, a public policy expert at Duke University who wrote Paying the Tab: The Costs and Benefits of Alcohol Control, told Mr. Lopez, the last time Congress raised the federal alcohol tax was 1991 — and that has let the actual impact of the tax erode due to increasing inflation:

“The great opportunity we have is to restore taxes to the real value that they had a few decades ago. That’s justified by the current social costs of drinking, and would have all kinds of beneficial effects, while being justified just from the point of view that drinkers should pay for the damage that they do.”

My opinion? I share Mr. Lopez’s argument that part of the problem is that policymakers just don’t feel much pressure to act on these kinds of public health problems — at least in the same way they feel compelled to act on an issue like, say, terrorism. So thousands of needless deaths continue happening in America every year, including hundreds this Fourth of July.

However, if you; a friend or family member is pulled over for alcohol-related driving, contact a qualified, competent criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. The consequences of DUI – ranging from jail, to high court fines to suspended/revoked drivers  licenses are too great to be trifled with.

Strict Liability Offenses

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In State v. Burch, Division II of the WA Court of Appeals held that in order to convict a defendant of vehicular homicide or vehicular assault, the State need not prove that a driver acted with ordinary negligence in the operation of a motor vehicle if it merely proves that the driver was under the influence of alcohol or drugs while driving that vehicle.

In December 2014, Burch was driving across an icy bridge when her truck spun out, slid off the road, and hit two men who were investigating the scene of an earlier accident. One of the men died and the other received serious injuries, including multiple broken bones and a severe ear laceration. Burch was uncooperative with law enforcement officers who responded to the scene. During their contact with Burch, the officers noticed that she smelled strongly of intoxicants.

They restrained Burch and brought her to a hospital to draw blood to test for intoxicants. Testing of that sample showed a blood alcohol concentration of .09, indicating a concentration between .11 and .14 two hours after the accident. The State charged Burch with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, alleging that she drove or operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug or any combination of the two, in a reckless manner, and with disregard for the safety of others.

The jury found Burch guilty of both vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. In special verdicts, the jury found that Burch had driven while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs, but had not driven recklessly. However, the jury was unable to agree as to whether she had driven with disregard for the safety of others. Burch appealed her convictions.

The Court of Appeals addressed the sole issue of whether the crimes of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault committed while under the influence of alcohol or drugs require the State to prove ordinary negligence in addition to the fact that the defendant was under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

Here, the Court of Appeals disagreed with Burch’s arguments that ordinary negligence is an element of vehicular homicide by driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

The Court also reasoned, “Offenses that criminalize a broad range of apparently innocent behavior are less likely to be strict liability offenses.  However, vehicular homicide committed by a driver under the influence encompasses little, if any, seemingly innocent conduct:

“Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is itself a serious criminal offense. RCW 46.61.502(1). Therefore, operating a motor vehicle under the influence is rarely, if ever, innocent behavior. Because vehicular homicide while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or drugs requires the State to prove the facts of both impairment and operation of a motor vehicle, the crime necessarily encompasses primarily or solely criminal behavior.”

For those who don’t know, a “strict liability offense” strict liability exists when a defendant is in legal jeopardy by virtue of an wrongful act, without any accompanying intent or mental state.  In criminal law, possession crimes and statutory rape are both examples of strict liability offences.

With that, the Court of Appeals held that the legislature intended to impose strict liability for vehicular homicide while under the influence of alcohol or drugs: “These considerations, along with the analysis of relevant statutory language above, lead to a single conclusion: the trial court did not err by instructing the jury that it could convict Burch without finding ordinary negligence or any other culpable mental state.”

The Court also held that the legislature intended vehicular assault by driving under the influence to be a strict liability offense, and that the trial court did not err by instructing the jury that it could convict without finding that Burch acted with ordinary negligence.

My opinion? Vehicular Homicide and Vehicular Assault are particularly difficult to mount a legal defense against given the “strict liability” facets of the law. The prosecution does not need to prove intent as long as the offender had drugs or alcohol in their sytstem at the time of the offense. Period.