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.