An interesting article in the New York Times talks about an upcoming court ruling which if followed in Florida, may open up a new defense to certain criminal charges. The defense? “I was too drunk to know what I was doing”!
In New York, three similar charges, three similar results. T. Taylor voluntarily took ecstasy, tore off her clothes during a fight with a family member then drove at 80 mph down a school zone at night without any lights on. She struck and killed a pedestrian.
M. Heidgen drank non-stop for almost 12 hours, got in his truck, drove the wrong way down a one way street and killed two people when he crashed into oncoming traffic.
F. McPherson got “blind drunk” at a night club, got into his car and crashed into a Jeep while speeding and driving on the wrong side of the road. The other driver was killed.
Three similar cases with similar results. All three defendants were charged and convicted of second-degree murder. The assigned prosecutors argued that the defendants had shown a “depraved indifference to human life” by their actions. Yet these seperate cases were all brought to New York’s highest appeals court on review. The reason? The judges had to rule on the arguements from the criminal defense lawyers: Their clients were so intoxicated that it was impossible for their minds to be in a “state of depraved indifference” that the law requires!
Over the course of several hours prosecutors argued that all three drivers were voluntarily intoxicated and knew they were endangering others but did not care. The criminal defense attorneys countered that their respective clients were too drunk or high to know that they were putting others in harms way.
How did New York get here? In 2006, People v. Feingold came out and the Court ruled that depraved indifference is a state of mind. This was upheld in several cases. As a result, prosecutors had an additional burden to prove. When proving second-degree murder cases (especially drunk driving ones), the state must show the defendant consciously and willingly showed “an utter disregard for the value of human life”.
These court rulings meant that heavy drinking could be a defense in vehicular homicide cases. For instance, M. Heidgen blew a .28, well over the .08 legal limit and drove almost five miles into oncoming traffic. Heidgen ignored several vehicles signaling at him to stop. Should the state have to prove he was sober enough to show “depraved indifference” or as the prosecutor argued, should it be left in the hands of the jury to determine if the defendants were culpable?
A ruling is expected within a few weeks.
Could something like this happen in Pinellas county, Florida? Is there a possible new defense on the horizon? The short answer is in Florida, probably not. Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and the surrounding counties rarely file a second-degree murder charge over a drinking and driving accident. Rather than risk having to prove the suspect had a “depraved mind” as required under Florida Statute 782.04 Florida has a better method. By filing either a DUI manslaughter or a vehicular homicide charge (many times both) against a suspect, the state would not need to prove “indifference” or even intent.
What is the difference between DUI manslaughter and vehicular homicide? DUI manslaughter is simply a DUI (driving under the influence) where as a result, a person was killed. The state has to prove that a death occurred as a result of the defendant driving a vehicle while legally intoxicated. A vehicular homicide is similar to a reckless driving charge which results in a death. The state must prove that a death occurred as a result of driving in a reckless manner where death or great bodily harm could occur.
While both charges are often filed by the state attorney, case law is clear that both charges cannot be used for sentencing purposes in the case of one fatality.
Have you or a loved one been arrested for driving under the influence or a possession of a controlled substance? Then call the Pinellas DUI lawyers at Blake & Dorsten, P.A. today! These former prosecutors are experienced trial attorneys.