DUI, Reckless Endangerment, and Sufficiency of Evidence
Part my work as a Seattle DUI attorney is staying on top of legal developments in the field. Whenever our Court of Appeals or Supreme Court issues a decision, I receive a copy of the decision via email. A lot of these cases are simply affirming a person’s conviction; the court saying “Everything looks ok here.” But sometimes a conviction is reversed. In those instances the court is telling people “There was a mistake here and this should not happen again.” Today’s post is about the latter, a conviction reversed, and welcome guidance on a common situation.
There are prerequisites for a prosecutor to obtain a criminal conviction against a defendant. The alleged crime has to happen in the jurisdiction of that prosecutor, there has to be the right defendant, the law has to be constitutional, etc. But one of the most important requirements is that the facts of the case actually support the charge. If there is insufficient evidence to support a conviction it must be tossed out, regardless of what a jury says.
Now, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence on an appeal is a very high burden for a defendant. At the trial level, where a jury decides the case, the prosecution has the burden of proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt. But if the jury does come back guilty, on appeal the defendant has to establish no rational jury could have come back guilty and every fact in the case is construed in the light most favorable to the prosecution. Because of all that getting a conviction reversed for insufficient evidence is quite rare.
But it does happen, and it happened recently. In State v. Rich, Ms. Rich was driving a reported-stolen car. When police caught up with her, her nine-year-old nephew was in the car. Police reported she exhibited signs of being intoxicated and at the station blew a .183 and .188. Ms. Rich was charged with DUI, reckless endangerment (for having the nephew in the car while driving drunk), and possessing a stolen vehicle. Ms. Rich was found guilty of DUI and reckless endangerment and acquitted of the stolen vehicle charge.
Ms. Rich’s appeal concerned the reckless endangerment conviction. The prosecution’s theory was that drunk driving was inherently reckless and that she endangered her nephew by driving drunk with him in the car. Ms. Rich argued that something more than drunk driving was required to also constitute reckless endangerment.
The case turned on the precise language of the reckless endangerment statute. The statute requires conducted that creates a “substantial risk” of death or physical injury to another person. The prosecution argued the victim could either be the passenger or some other motorist or pedestrian that was near Ms. Rich while she was driving, and the substantial risk was her driving drunk.
But the court determined this was all speculative. The prosecution never provided evidence of other motorists or pedestrians that were endangered, or that were even around Ms. Rich while she was driving. The appellate court made a big point of this: she was stopped because the car was reported stolen, not that she was driving particularly recklessly or that she got into an accident. Just because the prosecution could imagine people being endangered by drunk driving didn’t mean there was evidence it happened here. And without that testimony, there was insufficient evidence to establish the additional count of reckless endangerment. While the DUI conviction was upheld, that reckless endangerment conviction was reversed.
The takeaways from this case are important. For one, DUI is not inherently reckless endangerment by law. A person who commits DUI is guilty of DUI. If there are additional charges, there must be the conduct to support them. To be sure many DUIs also involve people being endangered. In those cases the prosecution can have that allegation stick. But this case stood for the proposition that if prosecutors want to charge someone with additional crimes, they need the specific evidence to back it up. It’s a common negotiating tactic for prosecutors to threaten adding charges if a defendant doesn’t take a deal. With this case, defense lawyers and prosecutors know more about what charges could actually be upheld, and which would be reversed on appeal.
If you or someone you know needs an attorney, feel free to give me a call.