Cornella v. Churchill Cnty.

Citation132 Nev. Adv. Op. 58,377 P.3d 97
Decision Date12 August 2016
Docket NumberNo. 56329.,56329.
PartiesMary Lou CORNELLA, Petitioner, v. Churchill County, State of Nevada, JUSTICE COURT of New River Township; The Honorable Michael D. Richards; the Third Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada, in and for the County of Churchill; and the Honorable David A. Huff, District Judge, Respondents, and The State of Nevada, Real Party in Interest.
CourtSupreme Court of Nevada

377 P.3d 97
132 Nev.
Adv. Op. 58

Mary Lou CORNELLA, Petitioner
v.
Churchill County, State of Nevada, JUSTICE COURT of New River Township; The Honorable Michael D. Richards; the Third Judicial District Court of the State of Nevada, in and for the County of Churchill; and the Honorable David A. Huff, District Judge, Respondents
and
The State of Nevada, Real Party in Interest.

No. 56329.

Supreme Court of Nevada.

Aug. 12, 2016.


377 P.3d 99

The Digesti Law Firm, Ltd., and Matthew P. Digesti and Laurence P. Digesti, Reno, for Petitioner.

Adam Paul Laxalt, Attorney General, Carson City; Arthur E. Mallory, District Attorney, and Benjamin D. Shawcroft, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Churchill County, for Real Party in Interest.

Before PARRAGUIRRE, C.J., HARDESTY and SAITTA, JJ.

OPINION

By the Court, HARDESTY, J.:

In this writ proceeding, we consider constitutional challenges to NRS 484B.657(1),1 which provides that a person is guilty of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter if, “while driving or in actual physical control of any vehicle, [the person] proximately causes the death of another person through an act or omission that constitutes simple negligence.”

Petitioner Mary Lou Cornella maintains that the phrases “act or omission” and “simple negligence” render the statute unconstitutionally void for vagueness. She also maintains that a showing of “simple negligence” rather than criminal intent violates her right to due process.

We conclude that NRS 484B.657(1) is not unconstitutionally vague if (1) “an act or omission,” as used in NRS 484B.657(1), is read to require an unlawful act or omission; and (2) “simple negligence,” as used in NRS 484B.657(1), is read as ordinary negligence. We further conclude that vehicular manslaughter closely resembles a traditional public welfare offense. Therefore, a conviction pursuant to NRS 484B.657(1), without a criminal intent requirement, does not violate due process. Because the district court erroneously upheld the constitutionality of NRS 484B.657(1) without interpreting the phrase “act or omission,” we grant the petition and direct the clerk of the court to issue a writ of certiorari upholding the constitutionality of NRS 484B.657(1) consistent with this opinion.

FACTS

While driving through an intersection controlled by a four-way stop sign in Fallon,

377 P.3d 100

Cornella ran over and killed 12–year–old Brittany Cardella, who was riding her bicycle. After the accident, the State charged Cornella with two misdemeanor counts: (1) failure to yield the right of way in violation of NRS 484B.257,2 and (2) vehicular manslaughter in violation of NRS 484B.657(1).

A bench trial was held in justice court in Churchill County, and on the second day, Cornella filed two motions to dismiss the charges against her. In her first motion, Cornella argued that the State failed to meet its burden as to count one because NRS 484B.257 requires a motorist to yield to another vehicle, and a bicycle is not a vehicle pursuant to NRS 484A.320.3 She further argued that, without count one, count two also failed because her alleged failure to yield was the predicate “act or omission” for the vehicular-manslaughter charge. The justice court granted the motion as to count one but denied it as to count two. Cornella then filed a second motion, arguing that the vehicular-manslaughter statute is unconstitutionally vague because simple negligence is not sufficiently defined to warn people of the acts that will result in a violation. After hearing arguments on the second motion, the justice court denied it.

The trial then proceeded with the State presenting multiple theories to demonstrate Cornella's negligence that resulted in Brittany's death. After Cornella presented her defense, she renewed her motion to dismiss count two, hut the court again denied it and found Cornella guilty of vehicular manslaughter in violation of NRS 484B.657(1). The justice court sentenced her to 150 hours of community service.

Following the trial, Cornella appealed to the district court. See Nev. Const. art. 6, § 6 (1); NRS 177.015(1)(a). Before the district court, she argued that NRS 484B.657(1) was unconstitutionally vague and that there was not substantial evidence to support her conviction. Without addressing Cornella's arguments concerning the vagueness of the phrases in NRS 484B.657(1), the district court found that NRS 484B.657(1) “clearly proscribes causing death of a person by the negligent operation of a vehicle” and upheld Cornella's conviction. Cornella thereafter filed this petition for a writ of certiorari, challenging the constitutionality of NRS 484B.657(1).

DISCUSSION

Initially, we note that pursuant to Nevada Constitution Article 6, Section 4 (1), this court has the power to issue a writ of certiorari. NRS 34.020(3) authorizes our review of a certiorari petition when a district court has examined the constitutionality or validity of a statute on appeal from a conviction in justice or municipal court for a violation of that statute. Because that is the case here, we exercise our discretion to consider this writ petition to the extent that it asks us to review the constitutionality or validity of the vehicular-manslaughter statute and the statute's alleged infringement of Cornella's right to due process.

“The constitutionality of a statute is a question of law that we review de novo.” Silvar v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court, 122 Nev. 289, 292, 129 P.3d 682, 684 (2006). “Statutes are presumed to be valid,” and the burden is on the challenging party to demonstrate that a statute is unconstitutional. Id. This court “construe[s] statutes, if reasonably possible, so as to be in harmony with the constitution.” Thomas v. Nev. Yellow Cab Corp., 130 Nev. ––––, ––––, 327 P.3d 518, 521 (2014) (internal quotations omitted).

I.

Cornella argues that NRS 484B.657(1) is unconstitutional because any “act or omission” and “simple negligence” are highly malleable concepts, and, therefore, the conduct prohibited by the statute is imprecise and void for vagueness. The “ ‘[v]agueness doctrine is an outgrowth ... of the Due Process Clause[s] of the Fifth’ and

377 P.3d 101

Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.” State v. Castaneda, 126 Nev. 478, 481, 245 P.3d 550, 553 (2010) (third alteration in original) (quoting United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285, 304, 128 S.Ct. 1830, 170 L.Ed.2d 650 (2008) ). A criminal law may be vague for one of two reasons: “(1) if it ‘fails to provide a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice of what is prohibited’; or (2) if it ‘is so standardless that it authorizes or encourages seriously discriminatory enforcement.’ ” Id. at 481–82, 245 P.3d at 553 (quoting Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, 561 U.S. 1, 18, 130 S.Ct. 2705, 177 L.Ed.2d 355 (2010) ). In applying this two-prong test to a criminal penalty, such as the one involved here, we look to whether “vagueness permeates the text,” which means a statute will be invalid if the conduct prohibited by the statute is “void in most circumstances.” Flamingo Paradise Gaming, LLC v. Chanos, 125 Nev. 502, 512–13, 217 P.3d 546, 553–54 (2009) (internal quotation omitted).

Under the first prong of the vagueness test, “a statute will be deemed to have given sufficient warning as to proscribed conduct when the words utilized have a well settled and ordinarily understood meaning when viewed in the context of the entire statute.” Nelson v. State, 123 Nev. 534, 540–41, 170 P.3d 517, 522 (2007) (quoting Williams v. State, 118 Nev. 536, 546, 50 P.3d 1116, 1122 (2002) ). But a statute is not unconstitutionally vague simply because there are some marginal cases where it is difficult to ascertain whether the facts violate the statute. Id. at 541, 170 P.3d at 522. Moreover, “[m]athematical precision is not [required] in drafting statutory language.” Castaneda, 126 Nev. at 482, 245 P.3d at 553 (quoting City of Las Vegas v. Eighth Judicial Dist. Court, 118 Nev. 859, 864, 59 P.3d 477, 481 (2002) ). Thus, when statutory language has ordinarily understood meanings, this court applies those meanings to define the limits of the statute.

Under the second prong of the vagueness test, in order to avoid discriminatory enforcement of a criminal statute, the Legislature must “establish minimal guidelines to govern law enforcement.” Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 358, 103 S.Ct. 1855, 75 L.Ed.2d 903 (1983) (quoting Smith v. Goguen, 415 U.S. 566, 574, 94 S.Ct. 1242, 39 L.Ed.2d 605 (1974) ). This prong is more important than the first prong because otherwise “a criminal statute may permit a standardless sweep, which would allow the police, ‘prosecutors, and juries to pursue their personal predilections.’ ” Silvar, 122 Nev. at 293, 129 P.3d at 685 (quoting Kolender, 461 U.S. at 358, 103 S.Ct. 1855 ).

We must now determine whether the phrases “an act or omission” and “simple negligence” make NRS 484B.657(1) void for vagueness. We address each of these phrases in turn.

“An act or omission” denotes an unlawful act or omission

Because Nevada has not specified the type of “act or omission” that is required pursuant to NRS...

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