Vehicular Homicide by Proxy

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

This actually happened a few hundred feet from where I live, though I don’t remember hearing about it at the time. An intoxicated man apparently struck and killed two pedestrians at a roundabout, then collided with a taxi.

It’s a really poorly designed intersection. There’s a smooth, three-lane, one-way road that runs for about a mile, then stops abruptly at a roundabout with quite a bit of pedestrian traffic, especially at night. So people fly up the road, then zip around the circle without looking out for people crossing. It’s especially bad late at night when people coming home from the strip of bars on the street where this happened are probably in a state where they’re less prone to be looking out for cars. (I mean, so I’ve heard.)

Of course, poorly designed or not, it doesn’t excuse the this guy, who was apparently pretty drunk. He was been charged with vehicular homicide. I’m not sold on the appropriateness of that charge for drivers in these cases (although this guy didn’t help matters by fleeing the scene—twice).

But what happened to the guy’s girlfriend seems way over the top.

Erin Brown’s boyfriend was charged with vehicular homicide and assault. She had been in the passenger seat. But in a rare use of the law, police also are charging Brown with the same crimes.

She faces as many as three decades in prison.

Police and prosecutors says Brown violated a part of the highway safety section of the Tennessee Code that makes it unlawful for the owner of a vehicle to direct, require or knowingly permit the operation of a vehicle in any manner contrary to the law.

Allowing someone to drive your car when you know they are drunk, prosecutors say, makes you criminally responsible for their actions.

The District Attorney’s Office commonly charges vehicle owners with driving under the influence for allowing a drunk person to drive their car.

But the vehicular homicide charge, a felony, against Brown is the first of its kind in Nashville.

Brown apparently was drunk too, and in her state of intoxication,she improperly gauged the level of her boyfriend’s intoxication before handing him the keys.

I’m okay with finding some civil liability for Brown, here. But it seems awfully excessive to take this woman’s life away from her for a split-second error in judgment that indirectly led to her boyfriend unintentionally striking and killing two people.

Brown apparently set herself up for the charge by telling police she gave her boyfriend the keys because he seemed “less drunk” than she was. So she basically admitted she knew he was intoxicated. (Again—never, ever talk to the police. Get an attorney.) But I wonder. What if she hadn’t made that statement? Could she have been charged if she should have known her boyfriend was drunk? How obviously drunk would he have needed to be? What if he was, say, just a hair above the legal limit? How much of a duty do you have to determine someone’s sobriety before you allow them to drive your car?

Seems to me that this is a pretty good example of “just because you can charge someone with a crime doesn’t mean you should.”

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55 Responses to “Vehicular Homicide by Proxy”

  1. #1 |  Zippy | 

    Strange, it was hyperbole. I agree that involuntary manslaughter is an appropriate charge in this case.

  2. #2 |  John Spragge | 

    Um, StrangeOne (#46), in many places the statutory definition of murder includes any intentional commission of an illegal act with a known probability of causing death. Driving drunk violates the law and carries a known high risk of causing death. In fact, the risk of dying in an alcohol fueled collision runs about five times the risk of dying in a botched robbery (based on statistics from the CDC and Bureau of Justice Statistics). Since anyone who provides a gun to a friend who then immediately sticks up a convenience store runs the risk of criminal charges, it seems inconsistent to exempt someone who offers car keys to a drunk.

    To answer your question about what it accomplishes to punish people who drive drunk or who facilitate drunk driving: it aims to make innocent users of public rights of way safer. It attempts to accomplish this goal by denunciation, disablement, deterrence. Punishment clearly expresses the public abhorrence of the behaviour; it prevents the offender from repeating the act, and it makes other people who might consider making a criminally bad judgment think twice.

    The question of whether the prosecution can justify the charges in this specific case turns on facts which a jury must weigh. The question of sentencing, of how many years a particular offence merits, belongs in the realm of public policy. But the record clearly indicates that the common default policy of assuming good faith on the part of car use has served neither the justice system nor the transportation system well.

  3. #3 |  DavidST | 

    If drunk people are accountable for bad driving and for short tempers, then they should be accountable for handing over their keys to other drunk people.

    The reason I think passenger’s of drunk drivers (even if they don’t own the car) should be accessories is because it is a common thing for the least drunk person in the car to avoid driving because they are the most responsible (hence worried about being arrested for drunk driving). Make them worry about being an accessory, and maybe the least drunk person in the car will do the driving (and drink less to boot). Maybe they call more cabs. Or maybe people will just stay home more often. I know a certain roommate of mine and myself did a lot more staying home after he got his second DUI.

    It really doesn’t matter. Our job isn’t to socially engineer, it’s to identify and penalize victim crimes. Accessory is a real crime, and those who sit in the passenger seats tacitly encouraging drunk driving, are helping to kill and maim innocent people.

  4. #4 |  Zippy | 

    DavidST, you’re going a bit further than I would on this. I’m not arguing that passengers ought to be held criminally liable in general for the driver’s actions. Rather, that if you give your car keys to a drunk person (knowing they are drunk) that this could constitute a predicate act for involuntary manslaughter. Not sure we want to consider all passengers accessories.

    In general, I think I agree with John Spragge. Punishment serves to deter others, to incapacitate the wrongdoer, and to provide retribution to society. All of those are legitimate reasons, and all apply in this case. Not sure she deserves thirty years, but her choice caused two innocents to die.

    I just don’t understand Radley’s whining on her behalf.

  5. #5 |  DPirate | 

    Well, if you are going to charge the drunken driver, then you should charge the drunken owner as well. She “misjudged” how drunk he was? That’s questionable at best, but the same excuse can be brought by the driver toward himself.

    I’d say DavidSt has it right, except for the bit about social engineering. It is definitely everyone’s job to engage in that.