A blog of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section

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By Burt Rose

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The Superior Court of Pennsylvania has decided the case of COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania v. Roland A. SPOTTI, Jr., Appellant, 2013 WL 1490996, 2013 PA Super 83, 677 WDA 2011 (April 12, 2013). This was an appeal from a Judgment of Sentence of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Criminal Division, CP–02–CR–0010771–2009. The appeal was before Judges BENDER, DONOHUE, and STRASSBURGER. Judge Bender wrote the Opinion while Judge Strassburger dissented.

Spotti appealed from an aggregate sentence of 2–4 years’ incarceration following his convictions for four counts of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol (AA–DUI), 75 Pa.C.S. § 3735.1, and related offenses. The Panel held that Appellant’s conduct was an indirect cause of victims’ injuries, and thus, Appellant could not be held criminally liable for AA-DUI.

This matter arises from an accident that occurred on State Route 376 East, a four-lane highway in Allegheny County. At 9:30 p.m. that evening, emergency services received multiple reports that Appellant’s vehicle was driving erratically. One witness, Elise Blackwell, was advised by emergency services to follow Appellant with her hazard lights flashing in order to assist law enforcement in identifying the Appellant’s vehicle. Blackwell complied, but remained several vehicles behind Appellant’s. Meanwhile, Steven Chung also contacted emergency services, and he began following directly behind Appellant’s vehicle.

Responding State Trooper Thomas W. Armour was able to locate Appellant’s vehicle once he observed Blackwell’s hazard lights. He pursued Appellant’s vehicle in the left lane with his siren and lights activated, but he was still a few vehicles behind Appellant’s. Trooper Armour observed Appellant’s vehicle repeatedly swerve into the right lane of traffic.

Once Trooper Armour arrived, Chung merged his vehicle into the right lane. Immediately thereafter, Appellant’s vehicle swerved into the right lane and braked suddenly, leading Chung to veer right again in order to avoid colliding with Appellant’s vehicle. Chung then collided with a van parked on the side of the road, and the van struck a tow truck that was there to assist the disabled vehicle. Richard Benchoff and Eric Hamilton were severely injured as they were changing a tire on the van when the accident occurred. Chung and his passenger, his sister Susan Chung, were also injured.

Appellant, who claimed to be unaware that the accident had occurred, drove on until Trooper Armour subsequently pulled him over. Appellant was transported to Ohio Valley hospital where his blood was drawn. The blood was tested by the Allegheny County Crime Lab, which determined that Appellant’s blood alcohol content (BAC) was 0.203.

On appeal, Appellant’s argument was that his vehicle did not collide with either of the victims’ vehicles and thus his conduct cannot constitute a direct cause of the victims’ injuries. He argued that Chung’s conduct constituted a sufficiently independent intervening cause of the accident that broke any chain of causation reaching back to Appellant’s conduct.

The Commonwealth’s evidence demonstrated Appellant’s intoxication at the time of the incident, that Appellant’s driving was erratic and, therefore, that there was a permissible inference left for the jury to determine if the intoxication was the direct and substantial cause of the erratic driving. The problem in the causal chain is that Appellant’s vehicle did not collide with any of the victims or their vehicles, nor were there any victims in Appellant’s vehicle.

There was sufficient evidence that Appellant’s intoxication was a direct and substantial factor in causing his erratic driving (swerving and braking suddenly) and that the erratic driving was a substantial cause of Chung’s change of course. However, the nature of that causation was indirect.

The statute in question here required proof of causation of the injury as an element of the offense. The uncontroverted evidence here established that Appellant did not collide with any of the victims or their vehicles. Although he was responsible for creating a high level of risk that such injuries could result spawned by the necessity of others’ actions to avoid his erratic behavior, such a relationship in causation was inherently indirect. Accordingly, the Court concluded that the Commonwealth failed to produce sufficient evidence to sustain Appellant’s convictions for AA–DUI.

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