State v. Garcia

Decision Date14 October 2021
Docket NumberA-1-CA-37486
Parties STATE of New Mexico, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Lee Waldo GARCIA, Defendant-Appellant.
CourtCourt of Appeals of New Mexico

Hector H. Balderas, Attorney General, Santa Fe, NM, M. Victoria Wilson, Assistant Attorney General, Albuquerque, NM, for Appellee

Bennett J. Baur, Chief Public Defender, John Bennett, Assistant Appellate Defender, Santa Fe, NM, for Appellant

IVES, Judge

{1} Defendant Lee Waldo Garcia appeals his conviction and sentence for homicide by vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-8-101(A), (C) (2016). Defendant argues that his conviction was the result of fundamental error because the jury instructions did not accurately present the law of proximate causation and that it is not supported by sufficient evidence of causation. Should his conviction stand, Defendant argues that his sentence must be reversed because it violates his right against double jeopardy. We disagree with Defendant regarding the validity of his conviction, but, because the district court increased Defendant's sentence after he had formed a reasonable expectation in its finality, we reverse his sentence.

BACKGROUND

{2} While drunk, Defendant crashed his truck into Victim as Victim was attempting to cross the street in his motorized wheelchair. After Victim had been in the hospital for approximately two weeks, Victim's family decided to remove him from life support, and he died.

{3} The State prosecuted Defendant for driving while under the influence (DWI), aggravated DWI, and vehicular homicide. The jury found Defendant guilty of two crimes: (1) homicide by vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor, contrary to Section 66-8-101(A), (C), a second-degree felony; and (2) aggravated DWI, contrary to NMSA 1978, Section 66-8-102(D)(1) (2016). The district court initially sentenced Defendant to an actual prison term of ten years but twice resentenced Defendant, and the ultimate sentence includes a fifteen-year term of incarceration. Defendant appeals.

DISCUSSION
I. The Jury Instruction for Vehicular Homicide Did Not Result in Fundamental Error

{4} Defendant argues that his conviction must be reversed because the phrase "outside event," as used in the uniform jury instruction defining proximate cause, UJI 14-251 NMRA, and in the given instructions, was not defined for the jury. Because Defendant did not raise the issue in the district court, we review for fundamental error. State v. Cabezuela , 2015-NMSC-016, ¶ 37, 350 P.3d 1145. Our analysis "begins at the same place as [the] analysis for reversible error[:]" we ask whether "a reasonable juror would have been confused or misdirected by the jury instruction." State v. Barber , 2004-NMSC-019, ¶ 19, 135 N.M. 621, 92 P.3d 633 ; see State v. Grubb , 2020-NMCA-003, ¶ 7, 455 P.3d 877 ("In a fundamental error analysis, we begin by considering whether reversible error exists[.]"). Jury instructions cause confusion or misdirection when, "through omission or misstatement," they do not provide "an accurate rendition" of the essential elements of a crime. State v. Benally , 2001-NMSC-033, ¶ 12, 131 N.M. 258, 34 P.3d 1134. But if an instruction "accurately presents the law[,]" it "is proper, and nothing more is required[.]" State v. Laney , 2003-NMCA-144, ¶ 38, 134 N.M. 648, 81 P.3d 591. To the extent Defendant's argument requires us to analyze whether UJI 14-251 accurately states the law, our review is de novo. Laney , 2003-NMCA-144, ¶ 38, 134 N.M. 648, 81 P.3d 591.

{5} Defendant contends that, by using the phrase "outside event" to refer to something that could interrupt the chain of events between a defendant's act and a victim's death, the UJI departs from conventional notions of proximate causation in criminal law. We disagree.

{6} When causation is at issue in a homicide case, the jury must determine whether an act of the defendant was (1) a factual cause of the victim's death and (2) the proximate cause of the victim's death. See UJI 14-251, use note 1; State v. Montoya , 2003-NMSC-004, ¶ 22 n.1, 133 N.M. 84, 61 P.3d 793. Proximate causation is a question of whether the death was a "natural and probable consequence of[ ] the accused's conduct." State v. Simpson , 1993-NMSC-073, ¶ 14, 116 N.M. 768, 867 P.2d 1150 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). To be a proximate cause, a defendant's conduct need not "be the sole cause of the [death,]" id. , and a coinciding event that contributed to a victim's death "to an insignificant extent" cannot relieve a defendant of liability. Montoya , 2003-NMSC-004, ¶ 19, 133 N.M. 84, 61 P.3d 793 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Even an event that significantly contributes to a victim's death does not relieve a defendant of liability, id. , unless "it is a superseding cause that negates the defendant's conduct." Simpson , 1993-NMSC-073, ¶ 14, 116 N.M. 768, 867 P.2d 1150.

{7} We presume that our Supreme Court's uniform instruction regarding causation in homicide cases, UJI 14-251, is correct, see State v. Ortega , 2014-NMSC-017, ¶ 32, 327 P.3d 1076, and our Supreme Court has recognized that UJI 14-251 encompasses both factual and proximate causation. Montoya , 2003-NMSC-004, ¶ 22 n.1, 133 N.M. 84, 61 P.3d 793. Our own review of the text of UJI 14-251 confirms that the instruction adequately conveys the necessary causation concepts. The instruction requires the jury to determine whether an "act of the defendant was a significant cause of the death ... without which the death would not have occurred" and whether "[t]he death was a foreseeable result of" that act—i.e., whether the death resulted from that act "in a natural and continuous chain of events, uninterrupted by an outside event[.]" Id. Defendant asserts that the phrase "outside event" is ambiguous and should have been defined for the jury. We conclude that no such definition was necessary because "outside event" has a common meaning, see State v. Munoz , 2006-NMSC-005, ¶ 24, 139 N.M. 106, 129 P.3d 142, and a reasonable jury would understand the meaning of the phrase in the context of the given instruction. We therefore reject Defendant's argument that, without a definition of "outside event," the given instructions may have confused the jury and were thus erroneous.1 See Laney , 2003-NMCA-144, ¶ 38, 134 N.M. 648, 81 P.3d 591. Because it would not have been reversible error for the district court to decline to instruct the jury on the meaning of "outside event" if Defendant had requested such an instruction at trial, we hold that the lack of an instruction defining that phrase was not fundamental error. See State v. Adamo , 2018-NMCA-013, ¶ 27, 409 P.3d 1002 (holding that, where "there was no reversible error" "in the instructions[,]" "there was no fundamental error").

II. The Evidence Suffices to Support Defendant's Conviction

{8} Defendant argues that the evidence did not suffice to show that Victim's death resulted from Defendant's act, uninterrupted by an outside event, and that it only sufficed to show that he caused great bodily harm, not homicide. Defendant contends that (1) the evidence demonstrates that Victim's own negligence in attempting to cross the street caused the collision, and (2) the subsequent decision to remove Victim from life support relieves Defendant of liability for Victim's death. We disagree with both contentions.

{9} In reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence, we first "view the evidence in the light most favorable to the guilty verdict, indulging all reasonable inferences and resolving all conflicts in the evidence in favor of the verdict." State v. Cunningham , 2000-NMSC-009, ¶ 26, 128 N.M. 711, 998 P.2d 176. We then consider "whether the evidence, so viewed, supports the verdict beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Garcia , 2016-NMSC-034, ¶ 24, 384 P.3d 1076. "We do not reweigh the evidence or substitute our judgment for that of the fact[-]finder as long as there is sufficient evidence to support the verdict." State v. Gipson , 2009-NMCA-053, ¶ 4, 146 N.M. 202, 207 P.3d 1179.

{10} "We will affirm a conviction if supported by a fair inference from the evidence regardless of whether a contrary inference might support a contrary result." State v. Barrera , 2002-NMCA-098, ¶ 10, 132 N.M. 707, 54 P.3d 548. A fair inference "is a conclusion arrived at by a process of reasoning which is a rational and logical deduction from facts admitted or established by the evidence." State v. Slade , 2014-NMCA-088, ¶ 14, 331 P.3d 930 (alterations, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted). Inferences and evidence contrary to the verdict "[do] not provide a basis for reversal because the jury is free to reject [the d]efendant's version of the facts." State v. Rojo , 1999-NMSC-001, ¶ 19, 126 N.M. 438, 971 P.2d 829. "[I]n the determination of proximate cause[,] common sense is not to be eliminated." State v. Landgraf , 1996-NMCA-024, ¶ 31, 121 N.M. 445, 913 P.2d 252 (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

{11} The State presented sufficient evidence for the jury to conclude, under the given instructions, that Defendant's act of "operat[ing] a motor vehicle while under the influence of intoxicating liquor" caused Victim's death "in a natural and continuous chain of events, uninterrupted by an outside event[.]" See UJI 14-240B NMRA; UJI 14-251 ; see generally State v. Holt , 2016-NMSC-011, ¶ 20, 368 P.3d 409 ("The jury instructions become the law of the case against which the sufficiency of the evidence is to be measured." (alterations, internal quotation marks, and citation omitted)). We reject the first of Defendant's two arguments to the contrary because the State presented sufficient evidence that Defendant was responsible for the collision. One of the State's eyewitnesses, Melissa Jacobsen, testified that she was driving approximately one car length behind Defendant, who had been...

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  • United States v. Garcia
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of New Mexico
    • July 12, 2022
    ...sentence such as an oral sentence” unless “the defendant has begun serving the sentence.” State v. Garcia, 2022-NMCA-008, ¶ 21, 504 P.3d 567 (N.M. Ct. App. 2021), denied (N.M. 2022). In fact, if a final written judgment conflicts with a previous oral sentence in New Mexico, the written judg......

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