Com. v. Heck

Decision Date28 December 1987
Citation517 Pa. 192,535 A.2d 575
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. James R. HECK, Appellee.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Henry S. Kenderdine, Dist. Atty., Joseph C. Madenspacher, Lancaster, for appellant.

James H. Thomas, Lancaster, for appellee.



ZAPPALA, Justice.

While driving to work on the morning of July 26, 1982, Appellee James Heck was involved in an accident with a motorcyclist, Dennis Ginder. Traveling northbound on Route 141 in Lancaster County, Heck approached the intersection with Union Schoolhouse Lane. He proceeded to make the gradual left-hand turn onto the lane and entered the intersection. The motorcycle, which had been traveling southbound on Route 141, struck the right front fender of Heck's automobile. The impact caused the motorcycle to bounce backwards about eighteen feet, throwing Ginder through the air. Ginder died as a result of the injuries which he sustained in the accident.

Following his prosecution and conviction for homicide by vehicle, Heck was sentenced to serve a one-year probation and to pay a fine of $1,000. On appeal, the Superior Court concluded that the evidence was sufficient to support the conviction, but reversed the judgment of sentence, reasoning that the conviction deprived Heck of due process of law by imposing criminal liability upon a showing of ordinary negligence, 341 Pa.Super. 183, 491 A.2d 212. The Commonwealth's petition for allowance of appeal was granted. Although we reject the Superior Court's analysis of the due process issue in this case, we affirm its order reversing the judgment and discharging Heck.

The homicide by vehicle statute in effect at the time of the accident provided:

Any person who unintentionally causes the death of another person while engaged in the violation of any law of the Commonwealth or municipal ordinance applying to the operation or use of a vehicle or to the regulation of traffic is guilty of homicide by vehicle, a misdemeanor of the first degree, when the violation is the cause of death.

75 Pa.C.S. 3732, Act of June 17, 1976, P.L. 162, No. 81, § 1, eff. July 1, 1977. 1 The violation underlying the charge of vehicular homicide was of 75 Pa.C.S. § 3322, which states,

The driver of a vehicle intending to turn left within an intersection or into an alley, private road or driveway shall yield the right-of-way to any vehicle approaching from the opposite direction which is so close as to constitute a hazard.

Concluding that the evidence was sufficient to establish that Heck should have known he was violating § 3322, but that it was insufficient to establish any degree of culpability higher than ordinary negligence, the Superior Court framed the issue as whether due process of law permits a conviction for vehicular homicide based upon a defendant's ordinary negligence in violating a traffic law. It held that where a violation is neither knowing nor criminally negligent such conviction offends the due process clause of our state constitution, Article 1, § 9. 2 The Court emphasized that its holding did not address the issue of the constitutionality of vehicular homicide prosecutions premised upon evidence of conscious wrongdoing or gross deviation from reasonable conduct.

The Appellee's challenge to the constitutionality of the vehicular homicide statute is not unprecedented. Both this Court and the Superior Court have wrestled with varied claims of violations of the due process and equal protection clauses since the inception of the statute. The Superior Court purports to distinguish the instant case from prior applicable decisions upholding the constitutionality of the statute on the basis that the decisions are not dispositive of the issue of whether substantive due process is violated by a conviction resting on evidence of ordinary negligence. While we believe this observation of the Superior Court arises more from a dissatisfaction with precedent than from a strict reading of this Court's analysis in prior decisions, nevertheless, we agree that this dissatisfaction has merit. We perceive the problem to be one of judicial interpretation, however, and not of legislative enactment.

In Commonwealth v. Barone, 276 Pa.Super. 282, 419 A.2d 457 (1980), the Commonwealth appealed from the trial court's order granting the appellee's demurrer to the charge of vehicular homicide under 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732. 3 The Superior Court addressed the issues of what the material elements of a § 3732 offense are and the degree of culpability, if any, which must accompany the elements. A majority of the court agreed that the trial court's order discharging the appellee should be affirmed, but for different reasons.

Of the four members of the panel who affirmed the trial court's decision, divisiveness of opinion arose regarding the degree of culpability necessary to sustain a conviction. President Judge Cercone and Judge Cavanaugh reasoned that the legislature did not intend to impose absolute liability under § 3732 for any death resulting from a traffic violation and would hold that the minimum culpability requirements defined in the Crimes Code, 18 Pa.C.S. § 302, applied. Review of the evidence lead them to conclude that the Commonwealth had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the appellee's conduct "... involves a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation." 18 Pa.C.S. § 302(b)(4).

The remaining members of the majority, Judge Spaeth and Judge Hoffman, construed § 3732 to create strict criminal liability and would have held that imposition of such liability was a violation of due process under our state constitution. The three dissenters, Judge Wieand, Judge Price, and Judge Hester, also interpreted § 3732 as imposing absolute liability, but would not have found the statute constitutionally infirm as a result.

Shortly after the Barone decision, this Court addressed two constitutional challenges to the statute. In Commonwealth v. Burt, 490 Pa. 173, 415 A.2d 89 (1980), we reversed a common pleas court's order holding § 3732 unconstitutionally vague. The trial court had granted a pre-trial motion to dismiss the homicide by vehicle charge, agreeing with the appellee that § 3732 does not provide reasonable notice of what acts are prohibited and permits arbitrary enforcement. We rejected this analysis, concluding that the statute contained reasonable standards. The trial court also concluded that § 3732 imposed absolute liability. We did not address the issue because the trial court did not hold, and the appellee did not argue, that the statute was constitutionally invalid on that basis.

We were confronted with the issue in Commonwealth v. Field, 490 Pa. 519, 417 A.2d 160 (1980). The Commonwealth once again sought reversal of a common pleas court order holding the statute unconstitutionally vague. Although Burt controlled the vagueness challenge, it was not dispositive because the appellee also contended that § 3732 unconstitutionally imposed criminal liability without fault. The appellee's assertion was rejected based upon our finding that there was no effort to impose a prison term in the absence of culpable conduct. We determined that § 3732 required the Commonwealth to establish (1) that the appellee had deviated from the standard of care established by the underlying traffic regulation which had allegedly been violated, and (2) that the appellee's violation of the regulation caused the victim's death.

Although the Field decision definitively answered the issue of whether § 3732 requires culpable conduct to sustain a conviction, the question of what level of culpability was required was left unresolved. In Commonwealth v. Koch, 297 Pa.Super. 350, 443 A.2d 1157 (1982), the Superior Court stated,

Since the decision in Field, there have been various interpretations by this court as to what level of culpability is embraced by section 3732. Commonwealth v. Spurgeon, 285 Pa.Super. 563, 428 A.2d 189 (1981) (Section 3732 creates strict criminal liability without regard to any scienter element and does not require a showing of reckless or negligent culpability); Commonwealth v. Hartzell, 282 Pa.Super. 549, 423 A.2d 381 (1980) (Section 3732 does not require a showing of culpability as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 302--intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or negligently); and Commonwealth v. Nay, 281 Pa.Super. 226, 421 A.2d 1231 (1980) (Section 3732 requires a showing of culpably negligent conduct as defined by 18 Pa.C.S. § 302(b)(4). See also Commonwealth v. Lang, 285 Pa.Super. 34, 426 A.2d 691 (1981) and Commonwealth v. McIlwain School Bus Lines, 283 Pa.Super. 1, 423 A.2d 413 (1980) (Both cases cite Commonwealth v. Nay, supra ). (footnotes omitted)

297 Pa.Super. at 354, 443 A.2d at 1159.

The resulting confusion was engendered by the Superior Court's reliance upon dicta in the Field opinion and in our decision in Commonwealth v. Houtz, 496 Pa. 345, 437 A.2d 385 (1981). In Field, comment was made in a footnote on the relationship between homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter that,

In our view it was the legislative judgment in enacting section 3732 to expand the scope of criminal liability for violations of the Vehicle Code causing death.

Field, supra, 490 Pa. at 525 n. 4, 417 A.2d at 163, n. 4. In Houtz, we were confronted with an issue directly bearing on the relationship between the two crimes. Consecutive sentences of imprisonment had been imposed on the Appellant following jury verdicts finding him guilty of involuntary manslaughter, 18 Pa.C.S. § 2504, and homicide by vehicle. Because the material elements of the offenses are the same and the offenses do not require proof of different facts, we held that imposition of both sentences could not withstand the prohibition against multiple punishment...

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