The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Karner, holding that evidence that a defendant operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of multiple controlled substances and violating traffic laws does not per se establish that the defendant acted with the mens rea of recklessness as required to prove a violation of Pennsylvania's Homicide by Vehicle and Aggravated Assault by Vehicle statutes. The Commonwealth may be able to make out other charges, such as Homicide while Driving under the Influence or Aggravated Assault while DUI, in such a situation, but this evidence alone, without evidence of bad driving, is not enough for the non-DUI related statutes.
Commonwealth v. Karner
The appeal in Karner arose in the context of the Commonwealth's decision to appeal the trial court's order granting a motion to quash (also called a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the counties). This means that the magisterial district justice held the charges for court and send the case to the Court of Common Pleas, but the Common Pleas judge reviewed the notes of testimony from the preliminary hearing as well as some additional evidence at the hearing on the motion and concluded that the Commonwealth failed to prove certain charges.
According to the evidence presented at the preliminary hearing and the hearing on the motion to quash, the defendant was driving a Ford pickup truck on Route 202 near New Hope, Pennsylvania. He was travelling approximately 53-57 miles per hour in a posted 45 mile per hour zone on Route 202. A Honda sedan, with two occupants inside, was travelling 25 to 26 miles per hour on that same stretch of road. At some point, the defendant rear-ended the Honda. This resulted in the Honda crashing into a building. The defendant's car hit a building, as well.
The driver of the Honda was severely injured and the passenger was killed as a result of the crash. There was additional testimony that the damage on the Honda was characterized as “offset impact.” This suggested that the Honda was turning off the road, but at a slower speed than the defendant may have anticipated. When the police arrived on scene, there was speculation that the defendant was under the influence of heroin and Xanax. Police arrested the defendant and charged him with DUI; Homicide by Vehicle; Aggravated Assault by Vehicle; Simple Assault, and other offenses including summary traffic violations.
On September 18, 2017, a Magisterial District Justice held a preliminary hearing, and the justice held the defendant for court on all charges. In response, the defendant filed a Motion to Quash (Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus) seeking the dismissal of the non-DUI counts of Homicide by Vehicle and Aggravated Assault by Vehicle. The defendant argued that the Commonwealth failed to establish that the defendant acted in a reckless manner so as to support those charges. The court held a hearing on the motion and ultimately granted the Petition, dismissing the non-DUI counts of Aggravated Assault by Vehicle and Homicide by Vehicle.
Ordinarily, the defendant may not appeal the trial court's decision if the trial court denies a motion to quash. The Commonwealth, however, may certify that the trial court's order substantially impedes the prosecution of the defendant and file an interlocutory appeal to the Superior Court. In this case, the Commonwealth opted to appeal the trial court's decision instead of proceeding to trial.
What Happens at a Preliminary Hearing?
Preliminary Hearings are frequently misunderstood, but they are extremely important in a case. The most basic purpose of a preliminary hearing is for a judge to make a determination that the Commonwealth has sufficient evidence to go to trial on the charges against a defendant. The Commonwealth must provide evidence that a crime occurred and the defendant committed it. This includes providing evidence from which the fact-finder can infer every element of the statute. Preliminary hearing judges often rule that the issue of intent is an issue for trial, but in reality, some level of intent is an element of almost every criminal statute, and therefore, the Commonwealth must also prove that the defendant acted with the requisite criminal intent at the preliminary hearing. Thus, the issue in this appeal was whether the Commonwealth was able to prove that the defendant acted with a recklessness mental state as required by the statute.
Motor Vehicle Code Violations and Driving With Controlled Substances in One’s Blood Do Not Per Se Establish Recklessness
In Karner, the Superior Court held that the Commonwealth “failed to produce any evidence that [the defendant] acted with the criminal recklessness or gross negligence needed to support the charges of non-DUI homicide by vehicle and non-DUI aggravated assault by vehicle.” The Superior Court held this despite the fact that the defendant violated multiple traffic provisions and operated a motor vehicle with controlled substances in his system. The Superior Court gave great weight to the other extenuating circumstances of the case. Specifically, Superior Court found very relevant that the complainant and decedent were driving significantly below the speed limit. Although the defendant was legally speeding, he was only driving a few miles per hour over the limit. Additionally, the impact that caused the accident was an “offset impact” which suggested that the complainant and decedent’s automobile was turning of the roadway, but at a slower speed than what Appellee anticipated.
It is important to remember that only two charges were dismissed against the defendant. The defendant will still have to stand trial for Homicide by Vehicle while Driving Under the Influence, Aggravated Assault by Vehicle While DUI, and several other serious charges. That being said, two very significant felonies were disposed of which greatly reduces the potential sentence in the event of a conviction. It may also improve the defendant's negotiating position.
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