A defendant accused of fleeing the scene under cannot  rely on voluntary intoxication to negate required knowledge of the accident

People v. Suazo (Cal. Ct. Appl., Sept. 19, 2023, No. F082140) 2023 WL 6118736, at *1

Summary: Suazo while having an elevated blood-alcohol level, drove his 2008 Ford Focus at a high rate of speed off the highway, through a fence, and into agricultural equipment parked in an adjacent yard. His passenger was ejected from the vehicle and killed. Suazo was convicted of second degree murder; gross vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated; driving under the influence and causing bodily injury; driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent or more and causing bodily injury; leaving the scene of an accident; and driving on a suspended license.  The jury found defendant fled the scene of the crime. (Veh. Code, § 20001, subd. (c)).

On appeal, Suazo contends the evidence was insufficient to support his conviction of second degree murder in light of his testimony that he drank alcohol without intending to drive afterward, then drove while unconscious. He also contends the trial court erred in failing to give, or his trial counsel was ineffective in failing to request, instructions on unconsciousness and voluntary intoxication with regard to count and the fleeing-the-scene allegation.

Vehicular murder based on implied malice

To support a finding of second degree murder based on implied malice, the evidence must establish that the defendant deliberately committed an act, the natural consequences of which were dangerous to life, with knowledge of its danger to life and a conscious disregard of that danger. (People v. Watson (1981) 30 Cal.3d 290, 300 (Watson).) Conscious disregard for the danger to the life of another distinguishes implied malice from gross negligence, which involves “the exercise of so slight a degree of care as to raise a presumption of conscious indifference to the consequences.”  “Phrased in everyday language, the state of mind of a person who acts with conscious disregard for life is, ‘I know my conduct is dangerous to others, but I don’t care if someone is hurt or killed.’ The state of mind of the person who acts with conscious indifferences to the consequences is simply, ‘I don’t care what happens.’ ” (People v. Olivas (1985) 172 Cal.App.3d 984, 987–988 (Olivas).) Implied malice requires that the defendant actually appreciated the risk involved. “In short, implied malice requires a defendant’s awareness of engaging in conduct that endangers the life of another—no more, and no less.” (People v. Knoller (2007) 41 Cal.4th 139, 143.)

The Watson court cited to the following evidence as sufficient to support a finding that the defendant acted with conscious disregard for life: the defendant’s blood-alcohol level was sufficient to find him legally intoxicated; he drove to the establishment where he was drinking knowing that he had to drive later; he presumably was aware of the hazards of driving while intoxicated; he drove at high speeds on city streets, creating a great risk of harm or death; and he was aware of the risk, as shown by the near collision and his belated attempt to brake before the fatal collision.

Appellate courts have upheld numerous murder convictions in cases where defendants have committed homicides while driving under the influence of alcohol.

Suazo did not dispute that he drove with a blood-alcohol level well above the legal limit, knew the hazards of driving while intoxicated, and engaged in highly dangerous driving. Rather, he argues that the evidence does not support a finding of implied malice because his testimony suggested he did not have a predrinking intent to drive, and he thereafter drove while in an unconscious stupor. However, a pre-drinking intent to drive is not required before a jury may find implied malice.

Unconsciousness and Voluntary Intoxication
Suazo contends the jury was permitted to consider his voluntary intoxication and unconsciousness, to the extent they bore on whether he had the knowledge required for violation of Vehicle Code section 20001, subdivision (a) and the Vehicle Code section 20001, subdivision (c) leaving-the-scene allegation.  He contends the trial court had a duty to instruct on these concepts sua sponte or, alternatively, his counsel was ineffective in failing to request such instructions.

Neither voluntary intoxication nor unconsciousness was an available defense. t

Applicable Law

Vehicle Code section 20001, subdivision (a) provides: “The driver of a vehicle involved in an accident resulting in injury to a person, other than himself or herself, or in the death of a person shall immediately stop the vehicle at the scene of the accident and shall fulfill the requirements of [Vehicle Code s]ections 20003 and 20004.” Vehicle Code section 20001, subdivision (c) provides an additional term of imprisonment for a person who flees the scene of the crime after committing certain forms of vehicular manslaughter.

Violation of Vehicle Code section 20001, subdivision (a) is a general intent crime, but actual or constructive knowledge of the resulting injury is an essential element.

 “[C]riminal liability attaches to a driver who knowingly leaves the scene of an accident if he actually knew of the injury or if he knew that the accident was of such a nature that one would reasonably anticipate that it resulted in injury to a person.” (Holford, at p. 80, 45 Cal.Rptr. 167, 403 P.2d 423; see People v. Harbert (2009) 170 Cal.App.4th 42, 53, 87 Cal.Rptr.3d 751.) This same knowledge element also applies to the fleeing-the-scene enhancement (Veh. Code, § 20001, subd. (c)). (Nordberg, at p. 1238, 117 Cal.Rptr.3d 558.)

Voluntary Intoxication

Section 29.4 provides, in relevant part:

“(a) No act committed by a person while in a state of voluntary intoxication is less criminal by reason of his or her having been in that condition. Evidence of voluntary intoxication shall not be admitted to negate the capacity to form any mental states for the crimes charged, including, but not limited to, purpose, intent, knowledge, premeditation, deliberation, or malice aforethought, with which the accused committed the act.

“(b) Evidence of voluntary intoxication is admissible solely on the issue of whether or not the defendant actually formed a required specific intent, or, when charged with murder, whether the defendant premeditated, deliberated, or harbored express malice aforethought.”

By its plain terms, section 29.4, subdivision (b) allows for admission of evidence of voluntary intoxication solely with regard to specific intent crimes. Neither felony hit and run under Vehicle Code section 20001, subdivision (a), nor the enhancement for fleeing the scene under Vehicle Code section 20001, subdivision (c), requires a showing of specific intent. Voluntary intoxication was not relevant to the offense or the enhancement. Accordingly, the trial court was not required to instruct on voluntary intoxication and counsel was not constitutionally ineffective in failing to request this inapplicable instruction.

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