Ex parte Edwards

Citation816 So.2d 98
PartiesEx parte Julia Marie EDWARDS. (In re Julia Marie Edwards v. State of Alabama).
Decision Date12 January 2001
CourtSupreme Court of Alabama

Mark John Christensen, Andalusia, for petitioner.

Bill Pryor, atty. gen., and Andy S. Poole, asst. atty. gen., for respondent.

LYONS, Justice.

Julia Marie Edwards was convicted of vehicular homicide, under § 32-5A-192, Ala.Code 1975. The Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed, without an opinion, but with two dissenting opinions. Edwards v. State, 816 So.2d 92 (Ala.Crim.App.2000). We granted certiorari review. Edwards challenges her conviction by arguing that the statute as written does not state a required element of mental culpability and that the trial court erred in refusing to instruct the jury on a mental state. We agree. We reverse the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals and render a judgment of acquittal.

On March 8, 1995, Edwards was rushing her six-month-old son, who had been sick for several days, to a doctor's office. Earlier that day, Edwards had telephoned the baby's doctor because of the child's poor condition. At that time, she made an appointment for the baby to see the doctor. Edwards testified that her son's condition worsened. She called the doctor again to explain his symptoms. The doctor told Edwards she should bring the baby to the doctor's office as soon as possible. While en route to the doctor's office, Edwards testified, the baby was making disturbing noises and his eyes rolled backward. She testified that she feared he was dead. Edwards drove faster than the speed limit. She attempted to pass a vehicle in front of her. In doing so, she crossed a double yellow line marking a no-passing zone. Her vehicle collided with an oncoming vehicle, and the driver of that other vehicle was killed. There was no alcohol or drug use involved in the accident.

Edwards was indicted for manslaughter, a violation of § 13A-6-3, Ala.Code 1975, and vehicular homicide, a violation of § 32-5A-192, Ala.Code 1975. At trial, Edwards requested that on the charge of vehicular homicide the jury be instructed that in order to convict her it must find she had the mental state of criminal negligence. The State argued that the charge of vehicular homicide is a strict-liability offense and that no instruction as to mental state was necessary. The trial court refused to instruct the jury on a culpable mental state with regard to the vehicular-homicide charge. The jury was instructed on the elements of vehicular homicide; manslaughter; and criminally negligent homicide, a lesser included offense as to manslaughter. Edwards was convicted on the vehicular-homicide charge and was sentenced to three years' imprisonment. However, Edwards was acquitted on the charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, which require proof of a "reckless" mental state and a "criminally negligent" mental state, respectively. Edwards moved for a judgment of acquittal, which the trial court denied.

The vehicular-homicide statute, § 32-5A-192, under which Edwards was convicted, states:

"(a) Whoever shall unlawfully and unintentionally cause the death of another person while engaged in the violation of any state law or municipal ordinance applying to the operation or use of a vehicle, or vessel, as defined in Section 33-5-3, or to the regulation of traffic or boating, shall be guilty of homicide when the violation is the proximate cause of the death.
"(b) Any person convicted of homicide by vehicle or vessel shall be fined not less than five hundred dollars ($500) nor more than two thousand dollars ($2,000), or shall be imprisoned for a term not less than one year nor more than five years, or may be so fined and so imprisoned."

(Emphasis added.)

Edwards contends that "unlawfully" describes conduct rather than a state of mind. She argues that the language of the statute implies strict liability because it states no requirement of a culpable mental state. She notes that all other homicide statutes in the Code of Alabama express clear, categorical mental-state requirements. Thus, she claims, the trial court, in charging the jury on vehicular homicide, which is punishable as a felony,1 was required to instruct the jury on a culpable mental state.

The State, however, argued in the trial court that vehicular homicide is a strict-liability offense. It argued that no criminal intent is needed to commit vehicular homicide and that the statutory term "unlawfully" means "without excuse or justification." Thus, the State claimed, when a person violates the traffic code, and a death is caused as a result of the violation, the offense of vehicular homicide has been committed, regardless of whether any criminal intent is involved.

The Court of Criminal Appeals, in affirming Edwards's conviction, however, concluded in its unpublished memorandum that the term "unlawfully" in § 32-5A-192 describes the state of mental culpability necessary for the offense of vehicular homicide. The court determined that "unlawfully" is defined under the statute as "without legal excuse or justification." In its unpublished memorandum, the court relied on its previous opinion in Burnett v. State, 807 So.2d 573 (Ala.Crim.App.1999), in which it had stated that "the culpable mental state of `unlawfully' must fall on the continuum of culpability somewhere between `knowingly' and `criminal negligence.'" 807 So.2d at 575 (citing Ex parte Long, 600 So.2d 982 (Ala.1992)).2

In the past, Justice Cook has voiced concern over the constitutionality of the vehicular-homicide statute. See Ex parte Beck, 690 So.2d 346 (Ala.1997) (Cook, J., concurring specially); Ex parte Knowles, 689 So.2d 832 (Ala.1997) (Cook, J., concurring specially). In Knowles, Justice Cook wrote:

"I write specially to express my concern that a statute that punishes an act of simple negligence as a felony raises serious constitutional questions.... [W]e should consider whether [the] conviction under § 32-5A-192, based on acts that constitute no more than simple negligence, violates the right to due process guaranteed by the United States and Alabama Constitutions."

689 So.2d at 833.

Justice Cook stated that "[s]ubjecting nonculpable simple negligent conduct to criminal penalties as severe as those provided in § 32-5A-192, without requiring a culpable mental state, raises serious constitutional questions." Id. at 834. However, the record in this present case does not support a challenge to § 32-5A-192 on constitutional grounds and, therefore, we do not further consider this issue.

A statute creating a criminal offense, with the exception of a strict-liability statute, requires a culpable mental state. Section 13A-2-4(b), Ala.Code 1975, provides:

"Although no culpable mental state is expressly designated in a statute defining an offense, an appropriate culpable mental state may nevertheless be required for the commission of that offense, or with respect to some or all of the material elements thereof, if the proscribed conduct necessarily involves such culpable mental state. A statute defining a crime, unless clearly indicating a legislative intent to impose strict liability, states a crime of mental culpability."

(Emphasis added.)

The Alabama Criminal Code defines the following terms relating to culpable mental states:

"(1) INTENTIONALLY. A person acts intentionally with respect to a result or to conduct described by a statute defining an offense, when his purpose is to cause that result or to engage in that conduct.
"(2) KNOWINGLY. A person acts knowingly with respect to conduct or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware that his conduct is of that nature or that the circumstance exists.
"(3) RECKLESSLY. A person acts recklessly with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he is aware of and consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that disregard thereof constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. A person who creates a risk but is unaware thereof solely by reason of voluntary intoxication, as defined in subdivision (e)(2) of Section 13A-3-2, acts recklessly with respect thereto.
"(4) CRIMINAL NEGLIGENCE. A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance which is defined by statute as an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. A court or jury may consider statutes or ordinances regulating the defendant's conduct as bearing upon the question of criminal negligence."

§ 13A-2-2, Ala.Code 1975. The commentary3 to § 13A-2-2 states:

"This section attempts to identify, define and reasonably delimit the main culpable mental states involved in the criminal law. The four states are `intentionally,' `knowingly,' `recklessly' and `criminal negligence'; and unless the offense is one of strict liability, at least one of these mental states is essential for liability."

(Emphasis added.) The commentary to § 13A-2-2 shows that the Legislature delineated and defined these four particular terms of mental culpability in order to alleviate any confusion in applying varying concepts of mental states in the Criminal Code. It is also notable that, in explaining the four culpable mental states set out in the Criminal Code, the commentary describes "term[s] of mental culpability," including the term "unlawfully," as being "necessarily difficult to articulate, [and] sometimes ... vaguely or only partly defined, or otherwise ... imprecise or...

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