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Iowa high court: vehicular homicide defendant cannot blame child seat


In State v. Derrick Earl Johnson, Justice McDermott, writing for the court, examined whether a drunk driving homicide trial court abused its discretion when it refused to instruct the jury that Johnson could be held responsible for a lesser “reckless” homicide offense and excluded all evidence that the child decedent was not in a child safety seat.

In McDermott, the Court graphically recounted a car accident in which the defendant “blew through a stop sign” and “broadsided a minivan,” causing it to rollover until it came to rest in a corn field. An eight-year old girl was holding a six month old infant in the minivan. The rollover accident killed the six-month old infant.

The Court examined whether “reckless” homicide by motor vehicle was included in the offense of drunk driving homicide. The defendant argued that drunk driving was by its definition reckless. The Court agreed but it noted that, while driving requires operation, operation does not require driving. When the defendant argued that any operation that kills someone requires driving, the court laid out a scenario where carbon monoxide poisoning inside a garage could kill an infant, be reckless, and not require driving. It also noted that “recklessness” isn’t really part of the homicide by OWI statute.

As such, both crimes each had an element that the other did not—making it “impossible” for one to be included in the other, and thus failing the so-called “impossibility test.” The Court thus found that the jury was properly instructed when “reckless” homicide bv motor vehicle was excluded from the jury instructions.

The Court also refused to allow the defendant to present evidence that the driver failed to safely secure the child in a legally required safety child seat before setting off on their journey.

The Court found that fatal accidents are often “overdetermined” by many different causes. Justice McDermott wrote:

“Events typically have many causes. In some situations, the resulting harm is often said to be “overdetermined,” meaning the result of accumulated events that contribute to the result, even if one person’s misconduct alone would not have been enough to cause the harm. See Restatement (Third) of Torts: Liab. For Physical and Emotional Harm § 27 cmt. f, at 380 (Am. Law. Inst. 2019) [hereinafter Restatement (Third)]; see also Eric A. Johnson, Wrongful-Aspect Overdetermination: The Scope-of the-Risk Requirement in Drunk-Driving Homicide, 46 Conn. L. Rev. 601, 633–34 (2013).

A person doesn’t avoid liability simply because his conduct requires some other conduct to be sufficient to cause another’s harm. State v. Tyler, 873 N.W.2d 741, 749 (Iowa 2016); Restatement (Third) § 27 cmt. f, at 380.

And that means a defendant in a homicide-by-intoxicated operation case can’t beat the charge simply by arguing his intoxicated driving was one of multiple acts necessary to bring about the victim’s unintentional death. State v. Hubka, 480 N.W.2d 867, 869 (Iowa 1992).”

But should the defendant at least been able to argue that the decedent would have survived had the baby been in a safety car seat? No, the Court reasoned, adding that the defendant “can’t use a homicide victim’s alleged ‘contributory negligence’ (the victim’s own partial fault for the harm that resulted) as a defense in a later homicide prosecution.

The Court noted that this principle had already been extended to vehicular homicide when the Court ruled in the 1992 Hubka decision that a vehicular homicide defendant could not use a decedent’s failure to wear a seat belt as a defense.

The defendant didn’t even win on a $10 DARE surcharge—arguing that it should not have been applied to him because the drunk driving statute, which requires the surcharge, was only incorporated by reference in the vehicular homicide statute, a separate chapter. The Court disagreed, stating that 321J.2 is required to prove vehicular homicide and the $10 DARE surcharge required for drunk driving cases also applies to homicide by OWI.

NOTE: David A. Cmelik Law PLC had no involvement in the Derrick case.

If you or a loved one have been arrested for OWI or other Iowa criminal offense in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, or other Iowa community, contact us for a free initial consultation. Criminal defense is all we do, of which OWI (DUI) representation is a significant subset. However, remember that a blog is not legal advice and that sending unsolicited information to a lawyer over the Internet does not establish an attorney-client relationship.

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