Commonwealth v. Huggins

CourtSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Citation790 A.2d 1042
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant v. Gary R. HUGGINS, Appellee.
Decision Date10 January 2002

Elmer D. Christine, Asst. Dist. Atty., Stroudsburg, for Com., appellant.

Lawrence A.J. Spegar, Mount Pocono, for appellee.

Before: DEL SOLE, President Judge, CAVANAUGH, J., McEWEN, President Judge Emeritus, JOHNSON, JOYCE, STEVENS, MUSMANNO, LALLYGREEN, and TODD, JJ.


¶ 1 The Commonwealth appeals from the Order entered on March 31, 2000, which granted Appellee Gary Huggins's ("Huggins") Motion to dismiss certain charges filed against him and to suppress evidence. We affirm in part and reverse in part.

¶ 2 On July 10, 1998, at about 5:15 p.m., Huggins fell asleep while driving a passenger van on Interstate 80. After Huggins's van struck another vehicle, it drove up an embankment, flipped, and came to rest on its passenger side. At the time of the accident, Huggins's van held 24 occupants, 20 of whom were under the age of 12 years old. Two of the occupants died as a result of the accident, and 16 occupants sustained injuries.

¶ 3 On August 16, 1999, police charged Huggins with 23 counts of aggravated assault, two counts of involuntary manslaughter, two counts of homicide by vehicle, 23 counts of recklessly endangering another person (REAP),1 and various summary offenses.2 On December 29, 1999, Huggins filed an omnibus pretrial Motion to dismiss the charges of aggravated assault, involuntary manslaughter, homicide by vehicle, and REAP. Huggins also sought to suppress any evidence relating to the use or non-use of seat belts in the van.

¶ 4 On February 16, 2000, the trial court conducted a hearing on Huggins's Motion. At that time, the parties agreed that the evidentiary record would be comprised of the testimony from an earlier preliminary hearing. N.T., 2/16/00, at 3-4. The trial court summarized the evidence from this hearing as follows:

On July 10, 1998 at approximately 5:15 p.m., [Huggins] was driving a Ford passenger van eastbound on Interstate 80, when at mile marker 298.8 he allegedly fell asleep while still operating the vehicle. [Huggins] allegedly woke up just in time to see that he was going to impact with the rear end of a Saturn sedan driven by Charles P. Bayly. The front left section of [Huggins's] van struck the right rear portion of Mr. Bayly's Saturn, [Huggins's] van veered sharply to the right, crossed the right travel lane, and went onto the right shoulder where it impacted with the embankment. The van rode up the embankment, then flipped in the air and came to rest on the passenger side; half in the right shoulder of the highway, and half in the right lane of travel. Mr. Bayly pulled his vehicle over to the side of the road and went to render assistance to the people in [Huggins's] van. Mr. Bayly testified that he was driving in the left lane at approximately 60 to 65 miles per hour when the accident occurred, and that he did not see [Huggins's] van until after the vehicles collided. Mr. Bayly also testified that it was a clear and sunny afternoon on the date of the incident.
Pennsylvania State Trooper Peter Gutowski arrived at the accident scene at approximately 5:45 p.m. Trooper Gutowski testified that [Huggins] seemed dazed and confused, and that [Huggins] allegedly admitted to Trooper Gutowski that he had momentarily fallen asleep while driving, which the Trooper later determined to be the cause of the accident. Trooper Gutowski's investigation also showed that [Huggins's] van had only 15 seats, yet there had been 24 occupants in the van when the accident occurred. Of the 24 occupants, 21 were juveniles, with 20 under the age of 12 years old. At least sixteen of the passengers in the van were injured in the accident, and two of the van's passengers were pronounced dead later that evening. The autopsy reports of Janine Ocean and Michael Channell indicate that both were passengers in [Huggins's] van, and that they both died as the result of multiple injuries sustained during the accident. The autopsy lists the cause of death for both people as being accidental.
An accident reconstructionist, Pennsylvania State Trooper Brian Vaddell, arrived at the accident site after dark on that same evening. Using the van's skid marks and the friction coefficient of the roadway, Trooper Vaddell calculated that [Huggins] was travelling at a speed of at least 78 miles per hour following the impact with Mr. Bayly's Saturn. The speed limit for that portion of Interstate 80 was posted at 55 miles per hour. Trooper Vaddell determined that none of the van's passengers were wearing seat belts when the accident occurred.

From his initial investigation, Trooper Vaddell concluded that the accident was caused by [Huggins's] falling asleep.

Trial Court Opinion, 3/31/00, at 1-2.

¶ 5 After the hearing, the trial court granted Huggins's Motion to dismiss the involuntary manslaughter charges. The trial court reasoned that, to prove the charge of involuntary manslaughter, the Commonwealth would be required to establish that Huggins consciously created a risk that serious injury or death would result from his conduct, or at least that Huggins could have reasonably anticipated that death or serious injury would result from his conduct. Id. at 8-9. The trial court concluded that the Commonwealth failed to establish either of these propositions. According to the trial court, "the Commonwealth has presented no evidence indicating that [Huggins] had any reason to believe that he was dangerously tired before falling asleep and causing the accident." Id. at 9.

¶ 6 The trial court additionally granted Huggins's Motion to suppress evidence as to whether the passengers were wearing seat belts at the time of the accident. The trial court concluded that 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 4581(f)3 precludes the introduction of such evidence. Id. at 17-18. Thereafter, the Commonwealth filed the instant appeal, certifying that the trial court's Order terminated or substantially handicapped its prosecution of Huggins.4

¶ 7 The Commonwealth raises the following two claims on appeal:

I. Whether the trial court erred in failing to determine that sufficient evidence had been presented at the preliminary hearing to sustain a prima facie case on two counts of involuntary manslaughter?

II. Whether the trial court erred in suppressing evidence that small children unrestrained by seat belts were seated on the floor of [Huggins's] overloaded van at the time of impact with another vehicle.

Commonwealth's Brief at viii.5

¶ 8 Initially, we note that Huggins's Motion to dismiss the involuntary manslaughter charges was in the nature of a habeas corpus petition. N.T., 2/16/2000, at 3. "[A] petition for writ of habeas corpus is the proper means for testing a pretrial finding that the Commonwealth has sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case." Commonwealth v. Saunders, 456 Pa.Super. 741, 691 A.2d 946, 948 (1997) (citation omitted). "The decision to grant or deny a petition for writ of habeas corpus will be reversed on appeal only for a manifest abuse of discretion." Commonwealth v. Karlson, 449 Pa.Super. 378, 674 A.2d 249, 250-51 (1996).

¶ 9 At the preliminary hearing, the Commonwealth need not prove the defendant's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Commonwealth v. Kowalek, 436 Pa.Super. 361, 647 A.2d 948, 949 (1994).

Rather, the Commonwealth must show sufficient probable cause that the defendant committed the offense, and the evidence should be such that if presented at trial, and accepted as true, the judge would be warranted in allowing the case to go to the jury.


¶ 10 The Crimes Code defines the crime of involuntary manslaughter as follows:

[A] person is guilty of involuntary manslaughter when as a direct result of the doing of an unlawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, or the doing of a lawful act in a reckless or grossly negligent manner, he causes the death of another person.

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2504. Under the Crimes Code, a person acts recklessly, with respect to a material element of an offense,

when he consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the material element exists or will result from his conduct. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that, considering the nature and intent of the actor's conduct and the circumstances known to him, its disregard involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor's situation.

18 Pa.C.S.A. § 302(b)(3). A "substantial" risk is one that increases the likelihood of harm to such a significant degree that disregarding this risk is seen as criminal conduct. See Commonwealth v. Mastromatteo, 719 A.2d 1081, 1084 (Pa.Super.1998)


¶ 11 The Crimes Code does not define the term "grossly negligent," a term used in the involuntary manslaughter statute. See 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 2504. However, in Commonwealth v. Lobiondo, 501 Pa. 599, 462 A.2d 662 (1983), our Supreme Court concluded that the legislature has equated the term "gross negligence" with "recklessness," rather than with mere negligence.6 Id. at 604, 462 A.2d at 665. ¶ 12 The Commonwealth presented evidence that Huggins fell asleep while driving, that his 15-passenger van carried 24 occupants, and that he was driving at least 78 miles per hour in a zone posted for a maximum speed of 55 miles per hour. The question before us is whether this evidence establishes a prima facie case that Huggins "consciously disregarded a substantial and unjustifiable risk" that death would result from his actions. We conclude that it does not.

¶ 13 In this case, the Commonwealth presented evidence that, at the time of the accident, Huggins's vehicle was traveling in excess of the posted speed limit. It has long been the law of this Commonwealth that "conduct made unlawful by the Vehicle Code is not necessarily the kind of "unlawful act" included within the definition of involuntary manslaughter,...

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6 cases
  • Com. v. Huggins
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • 19 Noviembre 2003
    ...A divided en banc panel of the Superior Court affirmed in part and reversed in part in a published opinion. Commonwealth v. Huggins, 790 A.2d 1042 (Pa.Super.2002). The panel majority, in an opinion by Judge Musmanno, reversed the suppression order regarding usage of the seatbelts, finding t......
  • Com. v. Kohlie
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 22 Octubre 2002
    ...a pretrial finding that the Commonwealth presented sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case. Commonwealth v. Huggins, 790 A.2d 1042 (Pa.Super.2002). Therefore, a pretrial petition for habeas corpus relief is similar in purpose to a preliminary hearing. Commonwealth v. Scott, 396 ......
  • Commonwealth v. Bullick
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 4 Agosto 2003
    ...of recklessness than those presented in the instant case." Id. at 597. ¶ 17 A similar result can be gleaned from Commonwealth v. Huggins, 790 A.2d 1042 (Pa.Super.2002), which dealt with a conviction for involuntary manslaughter, a first degree misdemeanor. In Huggins, the defendant was carr......
  • Com. v. Engle
    • United States
    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • 1 Abril 2004
    ...misuse of a child safety seat for a child under four years of age is inadmissible in a criminal proceeding. Cf. Commonwealth v. Huggins, 790 A.2d 1042, 1048-1049 (Pa.Super.2002), rev'd and remanded on other grounds, 575 Pa. 395, 836 A.2d 862 (2003) (evidence that establishes a violation of ......
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