Commonwealth v. Samuels

Decision Date28 August 2001
Citation778 A.2d 638,566 Pa. 109
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Matthew SAMUELS, Appellant.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

Steven C. Leach, Drexel Hill, for appellant.

Louis Gary Stesis, Media, for appellee.



FLAHERTY, Chief Justice.

This appeal from a conviction for homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence of alcohol raises the issue of the state of mind necessary to support a conviction of that offense. Appellant maintains that criminal negligence as defined in the crimes code is required and that the trial court erred in failing to give a jury instruction to that effect, as he requested.

The record contains the following evidence. On February 26, 1997, appellant was drinking copiously1 in a bar with friends when James DiAmicis and friends entered. Mr. DiAmicis greeted appellant's date, whom he knew, angering appellant and leading to a minor confrontation. When appellant left the bar, he and a couple of his friends waited outside until Mr. DiAmicis left later with one of his friends. Appellant drove his pickup truck across the parking lot into the car of DiAmicis's friend, then reversed his vehicle and headed for the exit. As he drove out, he changed direction to run over Mr. DiAmicis, killing him, then washed his truck at a car wash. The next morning at work, appellant borrowed a coworker's car and fled to Colorado where he was apprehended two months later on a fugitive warrant and returned to Pennsylvania.

In May, 1998, a jury convicted appellant of involuntary manslaughter, driving under the influence (DUI), homicide by vehicle while DUI, and accident involving death or bodily injury.2 He received an aggregate sentence of five to eleven years. Superior Court affirmed. We allowed the appeal in order to consider whether the trial court erred in denying appellant's requested charge on criminal negligence as it pertains to the offense of homicide by vehicle while DUI.

To support his position that the offense of homicide by vehicle while DUI is not a strict liability offense but rather requires proof of criminal negligence—that is, ignoring a substantial and unjustifiable risk and involving a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the circumstances—appellant relies on Commonwealth v. Heck, 517 Pa. 192, 535 A.2d 575 (1987). The Commonwealth, on the other hand, relies on Commonwealth v. McCurdy, 558 Pa. 65, 735 A.2d 681 (1999), wherein this court stated that the offense of homicide by vehicle while DUI requires (1) a conviction of DUI pursuant to 75 Pa.C.S. § 3731 and (2) proof that the violation caused the death, neither of which requires a showing of negligence. The Commonwealth therefore concludes that appellant was not entitled to a jury instruction on criminal negligence, there was no trial error, and the judgment of sentence should be affirmed. Contrary to the Commonwealth's contentions, however, McCurdy does not mandate a different conclusion as the issue in that case did not involve the applicable mens rea requirement for vehicular homicide offenses.3

Appellant argues that Heck, by analogy, supports his position. In Heck, this court addressed a related issue where the offense was homicide by vehicle (not DUI related), 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732. Explicitly, that statute, like the one at issue here, requires only that the death be caused unintentionally. We held, however, that the minimum level of culpability is criminal negligence, stating that Commonwealth v. Field, 490 Pa. 519, 417 A.2d 160 (1980), had already established that 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732 was not a strict liability offense and that 18 Pa.C.S. § 302 establishes criminal negligence as the minimum level of culpability.4

The logic of appellant's argument is sound. The motor vehicle code, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732, defines vehicular homicide, the offense at issue in Heck, as follows: "Any person who unintentionally causes the death of another person while engaged in the violation of any [motor vehicle law except DUI] is guilty of homicide by vehicle, a misdemeanor of the first degree, when the violation is the cause of death." The basis of appellant's conviction, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3735(a), DUI-related vehicular homicide, states: "Any person who unintentionally causes the death of another person as the result of a violation of section 3731[DUI] is guilty of a felony of the second degree when the violation is the cause of death...." The material language is identical. If we adhere to the rationale of Heck, it would follow that 75 Pa.C.S. § 3735 requires proof of criminal negligence. Although the trial court may have erred by refusing to charge the jury that criminal negligence is the culpability requirement for the offense of DUI-related vehicular homicide, any error in this regard is harmless in this case and a new trial is not warranted.

Under the harmless error doctrine, we will affirm the judgment of sentence in spite of error by the trial court if we conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the jury's verdict. Commonwealth v. Wright, 560 Pa. 34, 742 A.2d 661 (1999). The trial court's refusal to charge on criminal negligence as an element of homicide by vehicle—DUI-related could not have contributed to the jury's verdict as the court charged the jury on criminal negligence as it pertained to the involuntary manslaughter charge5 and the jury convicted appellant of that offense. The jury's finding of guilt as to involuntary manslaughter necessarily included a finding of criminal negligence. Thus any error by the trial court in failing to charge the jury that criminal negligence was also required for the vehicular homicide charge is clearly harmless.6

Therefore we will affirm the judgment of Superior Court.

Judgment affirmed.

Justice SAYLOR files a concurring opinion.

Justice NEWMAN files a concurring and dissenting opinion in which Mr. Justice Castille joins.

SAYLOR, Justice, concurring.

This appeal provides the opportunity for the Court to reexamine its decisions in the area of mens rea, a core concept of the criminal law. Like Madame Justice Newman, I do not believe that the General Assembly intended to require a specific finding of criminal negligence by a trier of fact to support a conviction for the offense of homicide by vehicle while driving under the influence. Careful review persuades me that the decisions relied upon by the majority in reaching a contrary conclusion are not supportable on their own accord for the reasons which follow.

I. Background— Mens Rea and Strict Liability

The problem of determining the degree of culpability required to establish elements of criminal offenses in the absence of express legislative prescription has proved to be a difficult one for the courts.7 The offense of homicide by vehicle/DUI, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3735, presents a particular challenge, as, for example, this Court's past expressions are divided concerning whether, on what basis, and to what extent criminal liability is intended to and may be imposed without regard to fault in the context of the predicate offense of driving under the influence, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3731 ("DUI"), including the extent to which such imposition would meet constitutional requirements. See Commonwealth v. Mikulan, 504 Pa. 244, 260, 470 A.2d 1339, 1347 (1983)(plurality).

Many jurisdictions hold that the offense of driving while intoxicated, as well as related offenses providing for more severe grading where actual harm results from a DUI, are intended to impose liability without requiring a specific finding that the defendant possessed a culpable state of mind.8 Criminal liability in the absence of intention, belief, recklessness, or negligence is generally termed strict or absolute liability. See generally Kenneth W. Simons, When is Strict Criminal Liability Just?, 87 J.CRIM. L. & CRIMINOLOGY 1075, 1080 (Summ.1997).9 Strict liability is unique in the criminal law, in that wrongful intent ordinarily is an element of a crime, this principle being embodied in the fundamental concept of mens rea. See United States v. Cordoba-Hincapie, 825 F.Supp. 485, 489 (E.D.N.Y.1993)(Weinstein, J.)(explaining that "[t]he term, `mens rea,' meaning `a guilty mind; a guilty or wrongful purpose; a criminal intent,' is a shorthand for a broad network of concepts encompassing much of the relationship between the individual and the criminal law").10 Because of this intrinsic connection between culpability and condemnation, statutes imposing strict liability are not favored. See generally Staples v. United States, 511 U.S. 600, 605-06, 114 S.Ct. 1793, 1797, 128 L.Ed.2d 608 (1994); Commonwealth v. Barone, 276 Pa.Super. 282, 290, 419 A.2d 457, 462 (1980)(plurality)(describing a "strong common law tradition against strict penal responsibility"). Indeed, commentators have strongly suggested, and in some instances courts have held, that there are constitutional limitations upon the ability of the legislative branch to impose criminal liability without fault. See Cordoba-Hincapie, 825 F.Supp. at 505-06, 515-16 (reviewing federal jurisprudence on the subject and characterizing such as "uncertain" and "uneven").11

While the imposition of strict liability is disfavored and of questionable validity in some contexts, there are recognized exceptions. For example, it is widely accepted that the legislative branch may impose absolute liability for "public welfare offenses" to promote the public welfare by enforcing compliance with regulatory schemes. See Morissette, 342 U.S. at 255, 72 S.Ct. at 246; Commonwealth v. Koczwara, 397 Pa. 575, 580, 155 A.2d 825, 827-28 (1959)("[s]uch so-called statutory crimes are in reality an attempt to utilize the machinery of criminal administration as an enforcing arm for social regulation of a purely civil nature, with the punishment...

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  • Commonwealth v. Smith, No. 2 EAP 2019
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • July 21, 2020
    ...status into strict liability crimes, which are "disfavored and of questionable validity." See Commonwealth v. Samuels , 566 Pa. 109, 778 A.2d 638, 641-44 (2001) (Saylor, J., concurring).Because the Majority's overbroad and shortsighted holding risks criminalizing the conduct of countless in......
  • Commonwealth v. Noel
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    • November 21, 2014
    ...not contribute to the verdict.” Commonwealth v. Bullock, 590 Pa. 480, 497, 913 A.2d 207, 218 (2006) (citing Commonwealth v. Samuels, 566 Pa. 109, 112–13, 778 A.2d 638, 641 (2001) ). Here, we conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the trial court's requirement that the parties make peremp......
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    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • December 27, 2006
    ...the reviewing court concludes beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the verdict. See Commonwealth v. Samuels, 566 Pa. 109, 112-13, 778 A.2d 638, 641 (2001). Upon review under this standard, we conclude that the trial court's error in failing to define "negligently" ......
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    • March 26, 2004
    ...there are legitimate and necessary exceptions to the principle of stare decisis. See generally Commonwealth v. Samuels, 566 Pa. 109, 141-42, 778 A.2d 638, 659 (2001) (Saylor, J., dissenting). But for purposes of stability and predictability that are essential to the rule of law, see Bonner ......
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