The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Wyatt, holding that the trial court properly dismissed involuntary manslaughter, homicide by vehicle, and related charges stemming from a fatal motor vehicle accident where the Commonwealth was able to show only that the defendant caused the accident without explaining how or why. The Superior Court held that the Monroe County Court of Common Pleas correctly granted the defendant’s Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus (also known as a Motion to Quash in Philadelphia) because the Commonwealth failed to establish a prima facie case of the requisite mens rea. This is an excellent case which illustrates that the preliminary hearing is not a mere formality and that the Commonwealth must prove each element of an offense by a preponderance of the evidence. This includes a showing that the defendant acted with criminal intent where required by statute. It is not enough for the Commonwealth to simply prove that something bad happened and that the defendant was involved.
The Facts of Wyatt
In Wyatt, the defendant was driving a tractor-trailer southbound on Interstate 380. At around 10 am, the defendant’s truck crossed the median separating the north- and southbound lanes and crashed into oncoming traffic, causing the deaths of three people and serious injuries to five other people. The Commonwealth eventually charged the defendant with aggravated assault by vehicle, homicide by vehicle, involuntary manslaughter, recklessly endangering another person, and other motor vehicle code violations. The defendant waived his preliminary hearing, but he filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus when the case reached the Court of Common Pleas.
What is a petition for writ of habeas corpus?
The petition for writ of habeas corpus is the mechanism by which a defendant may ask the trial court to dismiss the charges prior to trial. It is essentially a motion to dismiss which asks the Court of Common Pleas judge to review the notes of testimony from the preliminary hearing and determine that the magisterial district justice in the counties or Municipal Court judge in Philadelphia improperly held the defendant for court on some or all of the charges. The Commonwealth may respond by introducing additional evidence at the hearing on the motion, but most motions rely primarily on the notes of testimony from the preliminary hearing.
In some cases, the petition for writ of habeas corpus results in the preliminary hearing taking place in the Court of Common Pleas instead of at the magisterial district justice level. In Philadelphia, it is unusual to waive the preliminary hearing. Outside of Philadelphia, however, it is not unusual in a serious case to waive the preliminary hearing at the magisterial district court and then litigate a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the Court of Common Pleas. Where the parties have agreed that the defendant may file a petition for writ of habeas corpus after a waiver of the preliminary hearing, the Court of Common Pleas judge will then essentially conduct a preliminary hearing, and the defense may ask the judge to dismiss the charges. That is what happened in this case.
In Philadelphia, the petition for writ of habeas corpus is more commonly called a Motion to Quash. It is essentially the appeal of the Municipal Court Judge’s ruling that the District Attorney’s Office met its burden at the preliminary hearing. The defendant may not argue at a hearing on a Motion to Quash or Habeas Petition that the witnesses were lying, but the defense may argue that the evidence was insufficient and that charges should be dismissed.
The habeas hearing
At the hearing on the habeas motion, the Commonwealth called the affiant, a Pennsylvania State Police Trooper. The Commonwealth proceeded under a theory that the defendant had acted recklessly in crossing into the wrong lane of traffic and causing the accident. Under Pennsylvania law, the Commonwealth cannot prove the mens rea of recklessness solely by showing that an accident occurred and the defendant may have been to blame. Instead, a person acts recklessly with respect to a material element of an offense when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and intent of the actor’s conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.
The majority of the charges in this case such as homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter required the Commonwealth to prove that the defendant at least acted recklessly. At the hearing on the motion, the Commonwealth argued that the defendant must have acted recklessly because the investigators were able to rule out most potential causes of the accident. For example, the trooper testified that the weather was fine and there was no evidence of a mechanical failure. The trooper also testified that the defendant had potentially received but not responded to text messages and that he had unrestrained dogs in the cabin of the truck. Other evidence showed that the defendant was not speeding, had not been driving erratically, and that he did not have any medical incidents and was not eating food or drinking at the time. The scene also did not reveal braking or skid-marks.
Accordingly, the Commonwealth argued that the lack of bad weather and mechanical failures, combined with the fact that the defendant had two dogs in the cabin, crossed into the other lane of traffic, and had potentially received text messages, circumstantially gave rise to an inference that the defendant must have acted recklessly. Without any concrete explanation as to why the defendant crossed into the wrong lane, the trial court found that prosecutors were merely guessing at the defendant’s intent and that they had failed to prove that the defendant acted recklessly - meaning they could not prove that he consciously disregarded a known risk.
The Superior Court Appeal
The Commonwealth appealed the dismissal of the charges to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of the charges on appeal. The court found that neither negligence nor the mere occurrence of an accident, even a fatal accident, without more, is sufficient to prove recklessness even at the preliminary hearing or habeas petition level. There was simply no evidence as to what caused the accident. The Commonwealth proved only that the defendant caused a tragic accident by crossing into the wrong lane of traffic; it completely failed to prove what caused him to do that. Therefore, the Commonwealth was unable to meet its burden of proving that the defendant did it with recklessness or any other level of criminal intent. Accordingly, the Superior Court affirmed the dismissal of the charges.
Does the Commonwealth have to prove a mens rea at the preliminary hearing?
There is often a rush to prosecute someone who may have caused a fatal accident solely because of the headlines and other media attention that this type of accident may receive. This case, fortunately, shows that automobile accidents generally do not give rise to criminal charges where the Commonwealth cannot show that something more than a true accident occurred. Crimes require both that the defendant did something and usually that the defendant acted with criminal intent, and this requirement applies both at the trial level and at a preliminary hearing. This case re-establishes that accidents are not always criminal and that the Commonwealth must provide some evidence of each element of an offense even with the reduced burden it must meet at the preliminary hearing or habeas hearing. It also illustrates the importance of speaking with an attorney prior to giving a statement to law enforcement. In this case, the defendant did not say anything to police that could have later been used against him. Had he admitted to texting, not paying attention, or driving while tired, the outcome of the case could have been very different.
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