Thursday, June 2, 2011

Talking On a Cell Phone While Driving Not Enough to Constitute Criminal Negligence

Distracted cell phone drivers… we all hate them. Heck, sometimes we are them, but we hate them nonetheless. In Houston, back in 2008, the State decided to do something about it when a distracted cell phone driver was involved in an accident that killed another motorist.

In Montgomery v. State, a case released today by the 14th District Court of Appeals (Houston), the court reviewed appellant’s conviction for criminally negligent homicide stemming from a car accident that killed one person. The State alleged in the indictment that she failed to keep a proper lookout and made an illegal lane changed which posed a substantial risk and grossly deviated from the standard of care.

On appeal to the 14th District Court of Appeals, appellant challenged the sufficiency of the evidence to establish the culpable mental state of criminal negligence. As the Court explained,

in order to convict appellant of criminal negligence, the State was required to prove not merely that she did something a person of ordinary prudence would not have done, but that her failure to perceive that a substantial risk of death would result from her conduct grossly deviated from an ordinary standard of care.
The Court further emphasized that

criminal negligence entails a more culpable mental state than mere civil negligence. The distinction lies in the degree of deviation from an ordinary standard of care: “conduct that constitutes criminal negligence involves a greater risk of harm to others…than does simple negligence.”
Talking on a cell phone and making an unsafe lane change, without more, does not reach the level of criminal negligence normally required by Texas courts (e.g. cases wherein criminal negligence was found typically involve speeding, racing, and/or intoxication as contributing factors).

In a footnote, the Court cautioned the State as follows,

[i]n his closing, the prosecutor encouraged the jury to “set a precedent” regarding cell phone usage while driving. Arguments that cell phone usage while driving should be made illegal in Texas are properly directed to the legislature and not this court of the jury below.
In holding that the evidence was legally insufficient to maintain appellant’s conviction, the Court cited the complete lack of competent evidence establishing that cell phone usage while driving increases the risk of fatal accidents. The Court reversed the conviction and rendered a judgment of acquittal.

Just before concluding the opinion (and riding off into the sunset), the Court stated:

Supported by additional scientific research and increased public awareness, Texas may one day determine that cell phone usage while operating a vehicle is morally blameworthy conduct that justifies criminal sanctions; however, the State failed to establish that such was the case in March 2008, at the time of this accident.