In Michigan DUI Causing Death Case Victim’s Intoxication Probably Not Relevant

With marijuana use on the rise in Michigan more and more drivers are found to have marijuana in their system or to even be intoxicated from using marijuana containing products. This is exactly what happened in a causing death case recently decided by the Michigan Court of Appeals. The name of the case is People v. Baase.  In this case, the driver was not intoxicated but was he was driving on a suspended license.  The victim on the other hand had THC in her system.  The defense attorney argued that the accident would not have happened but-for the victim’s diminished capacity to “react to the world around her.”

The Michigan Court of Appeals did not agree with the defense attorney’s arguments and found that the victim’s THC was not relevant.  It is not clear from the opinion if the victim had used recreational or medical marijuana. And while this case did not involve an intoxicated driver, the ruling would likely have been the same whether a DUI driver who caused death or serious injury was under the influence of alcohol, marijuana or both.

What were the Facts of this Suspended License Causing Death Case?

The pertinent facts in the Baase case were that the Defendant was driving a stolen car, being pursued by the police and during the chase he entered into and drove in a center turn lane, and subsequently collided with the victim’s car that was entering the road from parking lot.  The Event Data Retrieval (EDR), or often referred to as Crash Data Retrieval (CDR), commonly referred to as the ‘Black Box’ indicated excessive speed by the Defendant, approximately 90 mph, immediately prior to the collision. Subsequent chemical analysis indicated the victim had the presence of THC in her system. The prosecutor filed a motion to suppress the evidence of the victim’s toxicology report and the Judge agreed that the results of the toxicology report were not admissible.

How Does this Case Apply to a Michigan DUI Causing Death Case?

Cases like this provide a potential roadmap of the legal analysis for inclusion or exclusion of evidence regarding the victim in a Michigan DUI causing death case.  Also, the analysis provides a comparative roadmap for defense arguments and analysis of a defendant especially in cases involving THC and prescription drugs related DUI causing death allegations. Largely attributed to Michigan’s medical marijuana act and the law legalizing recreational use of marijuana in Michigan, these cases and others have begun to address a change from a zero-tolerance, or a legislative established illegal or per se limit, to an assessment of the actions and behaviors.

Previously, driving after the recreational use of marijuana would have been a “zero tolerance” offense.  This means that in a prosecutor in a Michigan DUI causing death case with THC involved, the prosecutor would not need to prove that the marijuana impacted the driver’s ability to drive. Now however courts analyzing Michigan DUI marijuana cases are beginning to require to prosecutor to prove that the chemical evidence, which could include THC levels or the presence or detection of a certain prescription medication, combined with all the other evidence, is what caused the impairment.

Why Did Judge Find That the THC Level Was Not Admissible?

Generally, all evidence is admissible if it is relevant and reliable. It may be excluded if it is not relevant, not reliable, or more prejudicial than probative. The judge determined that the THC level was not significant enough to break the chain of causation. In more legal terms, it does impact the proximate cause of the accident.  For this to be possible the use of marijuana and therefore the presence of THC alone must be grossly negligent. The trial court supported its decision by determining that there was no evidence that the victim drove in a way that was otherwise reckless or grossly negligent.  To the contrary, the evidence suggested that the victim simply pulled out onto the road in a normal way.  It was the defendant’s actions, specifically his driving 90 mph, that caused the accident.

Why is Causation Relevant in a Michigan DUI Causing Death Case?

One of the key issues, and defenses, in a Michigan DUI causing death case is determining who was at fault. This determination is a based on a combination of factual causation and proximate causation.  The legal defense principle in proximate causation is that there is a disconnect between the driver and the accident because of a “superseding intervening” event.  In other words, the argument is that the accident would not have occurred “but for” the negligence of the other driver.  A successful causation argument would lead to the dismissal of a Michigan DUI causing death case.

The Baase case determined however that in order for such a defense to be successful, the other driver or person must be shown to have been grossly negligent, and not just ordinarily negligent. If it is established that the other driver was grossly negligent it severs the proximate cause and the fact finder, or the juror, can determine that the defendant is not criminally liable. Simply it means you are not guilty because of their actions.

What is Gross Negligence and When Does it Apply to a Michigan DUI Causing Death Case?

Gross Negligence has been addressed by previous courts in Michigan DUI cases.  For example in People v. Feezel gross negligence was defined to be more than just higher degree of negligence. To be gross negligence, the actions must demonstrate a “wantonness and disregard of the consequences which may ensue…” According to Black’s Law Dictionary “Wantonness” is “[c]onduct indicating that the actor is aware of the risks but indifferent to the results” and usually “suggests a greater degree of culpability than recklessness …”

The Court of Appeals in Baase contrasted the facts Feezel wherein the (extreme) alcohol intoxication of the victim (.26 BAC) coupled with walking down the middle of the roadway during bad weather conditions was grossly negligent, and therefore could be a superseding or intervening cause that severs proximate cause.  The Baase court also compared the facts to Bergman (People Bergman, 312 Mich App 471 (2015)) where the victim’s toxicology report indicated a .05 BAC and 6ng of THC. In Bergman the court excluded those results/records from being admitted because there no evidence that the victim’s actions or behavior contributed in any way, but it was the Defendant that had crossed the centerline and struck the victim.  Essentially, Baase suggests that presence of alcohol and/or drugs in a victims system are not necessarily enough to be considered grossly negligent, by themselves.  Additional facts must point to the victim’s gross negligence.

Why Does Baase Apply to a Michigan DUI Causing Death Case?

Michigan law is affected by two separate entities, Legislative and Judicial.  The written law, or statute, is Legislative, and the precedent, or case law, that has been established by the Court of Appeals or the Supreme Court is Judicial.  A criminal trial attorney must not only have a clear understanding of the law itself but more importantly must comprehend how similar fact patterns and cases have previously been decided, or held, by the higher courts to be able to compare or contrast the facts of your case. The significance of a ‘published’ or ‘non-published’ is one of degree.  A published opinion is binding precedent, which means it must be followed unless factual or legally differentiated in some aspect.  An unpublish opinion means that it is persuasive, or in other words, it should be followed but is not legally mandatory.  Therefore, the holding in Baase is persuasive rather than mandatory precedent, but its impact will be significant not only in how it is applied to victims involving THC but arguably to how it applies to defendants in a Michigan DUI causing death case involving THC or Prescription drugs.

How Would a Michigan DUI Lawyer Use this Case?

Drunk and drugged driving causing death cases are one of the most serious and complex cases to defend.  It is combination of extreme emotion on both sides of aisle, complicated scientific principles, and minute factual details, that all must be professionally, artfully, and expertly handled. Because we have handled a significant number of drunk and drugged driving death cases, including trials on these cases, we are always interested the changing legal landscape.

The Michigan DUI causing death expert attorneys at the Barone Defense Firm handle several DUI causing death cases each year and are well versed in raising causation issues. If you have been charged for a Michigan DUI causing death or serious injury case, contact the Barone Defense Firm for your free case evaluation.

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