Hartzler v. State

Citation774 S.E.2d 738,332 Ga.App. 674
Decision Date30 June 2015
Docket NumberNo. A15A0321.,A15A0321.
CourtUnited States Court of Appeals (Georgia)

Matthew Gerard Leipold, for Appellant.

Lee Darragh, Dist. Atty., Burke O. Doherty, Asst. Dist. Atty., for Appellee.



A jury convicted Colon Louis Hartzler of two counts of homicide by vehicle in the first degree, driving under the influence less safe, driving under the influence per se, making false statements, and a seat-belt violation. Hartzler appeals, arguing that the evidence was insufficient to support his vehicular-homicide convictions; and that the trial court erred by admitting evidence of his blood-alcohol content in violation of the Confrontation Clause, improperly charging the jury that the negligence of the victim was irrelevant for purposes of establishing causation, and improperly expressing an opinion on his guilt. For the reasons set forth infra, we affirm.

Viewed in the light most favorable to the jury's verdict,1 the evidence shows that on June 25, 2010, Hartzler and the victim spent the day together drinking beer and “off roading” or “mudding” in Hartzler's jeep, which had no doors. And later that evening, Hartzler drove the victim toward a restaurant, where she planned to meet some friends. They were traveling north on Georgia 400 and, at approximately 10:22 p.m., they reached the intersection where the restaurant was located. Then, Hartzler, driving at a speed of no less than 18 miles per hour, took a sharp left turn, and the victim, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was ejected from the vehicle and onto the middle of the highway.

After the victim was thrown from the jeep, Hartzler drove another 70 feet, but he eventually stopped and walked back onto the unlit highway toward the victim. And as Hartzler was standing over her, a minivan struck him and then ran over the victim. Another motorist who witnessed the collision called 911, and law enforcement and medical personnel responded to the scene. Hartzler sustained serious injuries and was air lifted to an area hospital for treatment. Tragically, the victim died.

Several individuals who responded to the scene testified that they smelled the strong odor of alcohol emanating from Hartzler. His jeep also smelled strongly of alcohol, and there was a cooler inside it, which contained a spilled alcoholic beverage. After the collision, while Hartzler was still at the hospital, a law-enforcement officer read him an implied-consent notice and requested that he submit to a blood test, but Hartzler refused. Later, in a taped interview, Hartzler admitted that he and the victim had taken approximately 18 beers with them to go mudding, but he claimed that he only drank 4 beers and that he stopped drinking at 5:00 p.m. Eventually, the police obtained a warrant for Hartzler's medical records, which revealed that a few hours after the accident his blood-alcohol content was 0.19 grams, more than twice the legal limit.

In a nine-count indictment, Hartzler was charged with three counts of first-degree homicide by vehicle, driving under the influence less safe, driving under the influence per se, reckless driving, making false statements, a reflector violation, and a seat-belt violation. And after a jury trial, Hartzler was acquitted of one count of first-degree homicide by vehicle and the reckless-driving count. The court also granted a directed verdict of acquittal as to the reflector-violation count, but the jury found Hartzler guilty of all the remaining charges. Thereafter, Hartzler filed a motion for a new trial, which the trial court denied. This appeal follows.

1. Hartzler first argues that the evidence was insufficient to support his first-degree vehicular-homicide convictions because the State failed to establish a sufficient causal connection between his intoxication and the events leading up to the victim's death. We disagree.

To begin with, we note that when a criminal conviction is appealed, the evidence must be viewed “in the light most favorable to the verdict, and the appellant no longer enjoys a presumption of innocence.”2 And, of course, in evaluating the sufficiency of the evidence, we do not “weigh the evidence or determine witness credibility, but only determine whether a rational trier of fact could have found the defendant guilty of the charged offenses beyond a reasonable doubt.”3 Thus, we will uphold a jury's verdict so long as there is “some competent evidence, even though contradicted, to support each fact necessary to make out the State's case.”4 Bearing these guiding principles in mind, we turn now to Hartzler's specific claim of error.

Our analysis begins with OCGA § 40–6–393(a), which provides that [a]ny person who, without malice aforethought, causes the death of another person through the violation of subsection (a) of Code Section ... 40–6–391 [driving under the influence of alcohol], ... commits the offense of homicide by vehicle in the first degree....”5 And OCGA § 40–6–391 provides, in relevant part, that [a] person shall not drive or be in actual physical control of any moving vehicle while [u]nder the influence of alcohol to the extent that it is less safe for the person to drive;”6 or [t]he person's alcohol concentration is 0.08 grams or more at any time within three hours after such driving or being in actual physical control from alcohol consumed before such driving or being in actual physical control ended.”7

Without citing to any legal authority, except for the standard of review for sufficiency-of-the-evidence claims, Hartzler summarily asserts that the evidence was insufficient to support his vehicular-homicide convictions because (1) there were significant “intervening causes,” such as the jeep having no doors and the victim's intoxication and failure to wear a seat belt; (2) the coroner testified that the cause of death was an accident; and (3) there was an insufficient causal connection between any act of driving under the influence and the victim's death.

To find a defendant guilty of first-degree vehicular homicide in Georgia, a jury must conclude that the defendant's conduct was “the ‘legal’ or ‘proximate’ cause, as well as the cause in fact, of the death.”8 And an injury or damage is proximately caused by an act or a failure to act whenever it appears from the evidence that the act or omission played a substantial part in bringing about or actually causing the injury or damage and that the injury or damage was either a direct result or a reasonably probable consequence of the act or omission.”9 Further, what constitutes proximate cause is “undeniably a jury question and is always to be determined on the facts of each case upon mixed considerations of logic, common sense, justice, policy, and precedent.”10

As to the evidence in this case, a motorist—who observed Hartzler make the left turn during which the victim was thrown from his jeep—described Hartzler's driving as “faster than normal and careless.” Further, at least five witnesses testified that, when they responded to the scene, they smelled the strong odor of alcohol emanating from Hartzler. And one witness—who saw Hartzler walk out into the highway toward the victim—testified that he was “stumbling” and “pretty relaxed, almost as if he was drunk.” Indeed, Hartzler's medical records confirmed that, on the night in question, his blood-alcohol content was more than twice the legal limit. Thus, under these particular circumstances, there was sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Hartzler's conduct of driving while impaired by alcohol and taking a faster than normal turn in a door-less jeep, thereby causing his passenger to be thrown from the vehicle, “played a substantial part in bringing about [her] death and that [her] death was a reasonably probable consequence of [his] actions.”11

2. Next, Hartzler argues that the trial court's admission of his medical records, which revealed his blood-alcohol content, violated the Confrontation Clause of the United States Constitution12 because no one with personal knowledge of the testing testified at trial. Again, we disagree.13

At the outset, we note that, as a general rule, “admission of evidence is a matter resting within the sound discretion of the trial court, and appellate courts will not disturb the exercise of that discretion absent evidence of its abuse.”14 In Crawford v. Washington,15 the Supreme Court of the United States held that “the admission of out-of-court statements that are testimonial in nature violates the Confrontation Clause unless the declarant is unavailable and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.”16 And statements are “testimonial in nature” when the “primary purpose of the statements is to establish or prove past events potentially relevant to later criminal prosecution.”17 But statements made by witnesses to “questions of investigating officers are nontestimonial when they are made primarily to enable police assistance to meet an ongoing emergency.”18

As previously noted, Hartzler argues that the admission of testimony regarding the blood-test results contained in his medical records violated the Confrontation Clause because the doctor who testified about the records played no role in performing the blood test. The Supreme Court of Georgia, however, has expressly held that [m]edical records created for treatment purposes are not testimonial.”19 And here, Hartzler's medical records are not testimonial in nature because “the circumstances surrounding their creation and the statements and actions of the parties objectively indicate that the records were prepared with a primary purpose of facilitating [his] medical care.”20

Thus, unlike other cases involving blood tests performed in a forensic lab at the request of law-enforcement officers, Hartzler's blood was not drawn and tested as part of an ongoing criminal investigation or for the purpose of aiding in his prosecution.21 In fact, a law-enforcement officer sought Hartzler's...

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