Murder Conviction for Drunk Driving Reversed For Allowing Surprise Expert Testimony

People v. Hughes, 2020 WL 3071948 (Cal.App. 4 Dist., E069445; Filed 06/10/2020)

After drinking, Michael Dwayne Hughes hit a PT Cruiser whose driver failed to yield to him, killing the driver and her two children, who were passengers. Hughes, who had a prior conviction for driving under the influence, was charged with three counts of murder, on the theory he knew the risk of driving while intoxicated but drove anyway.

Was Hughes’s drinking was a substantial factor in causing the accident?

Hughes’ blood alcohol level two hours after the accident was 0.13 percent, above the legal limit of 0.08 percent. At trial, the defense called a toxicologist who explained that alcohol levels would be expected to change in the two hours between the accident and the time that blood was drawn from Hughes. The toxicologist testified that Hughes’s blood-alcohol level was probably rising throughout that period and could have been below the legal limit at the time of the crash.

Investigation of Accident by California Highway Patrol Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT)

The jury also heard testimony of the CHP MAIT investigation of the accident which concluded that as the PT Cruiser was making a left-hand turn, Hughes was driving southbound in the No. 2 lane. Hughes was able to see the PT Cruiser make a left-hand turn in front of him and apply the brakes. Using mathematical formulas they concluded Hughes was traveling at about 63 miles per hour when he applied the brakes.

New expert testimony—not previously disclosed to the defense in violation of the criminal discovery statutes

After this testimony, the prosecution called as an expert witness a second member of the CHP team which investigated the accident. The expert disagreed with the MAIT team and opined that the accident wouldn’t have happened if Hughes had been driving at the speed limit and hadn’t been intoxicated.

The trial court allowed the prosecution to proceed with the questioning, over the defense’s objection. The defense had to cross-examine the expert without an opportunity to prepare adequately.

The trial court denied Hughes’s motion for a mistrial. To remedy the discovery violation, it instructed the jury that the prosecution hadn’t disclosed the new evidence in a timely fashion and allowed the defense to recall the expert. Hughes was convicted of three counts of murder, and the trial court sentenced him to three consecutive 15-year-to-life terms.

Discovery statutes and avoiding surprise in criminal trials

Penal Code Section 1054 et seq. governs discovery in criminal cases and aims at flushing out the truth early and avoiding the element of surprise (on both sides) in criminal trials. “ ‘The purpose of section 1054 et seq. is to promote ascertainment of truth by liberal discovery rules which allow parties to obtain information in order to prepare their cases and reduce the chance of surprise at trial. [Citation.] Reciprocal discovery is intended to protect the public interest in a full and truthful disclosure of critical facts, to promote the People’s interest in preventing a last minute defense, and to reduce the risk of judgments based on incomplete testimony.’ ” (Thompson v. Superior Court (1997) 53 Cal.App.4th 480, 487, 61 Cal.Rptr.2d 785 (Thompson).)

In support of this public policy, are required to disclose to the defendant “materials and information, if it is in the possession of the prosecuting attorney or if the prosecuting attorney knows it to be in the possession of the investigating agencies,” including “[r]elevant written or recorded statements of witnesses or reports of the statements of witnesses whom the prosecutor intends to call at the trial, including any reports or statements of experts made in conjunction with the case, including the results of physical or mental examinations, scientific tests, experiments, or comparisons which the prosecutor intends to offer in evidence at the trial.” (§ 1054.1, subd. (f))

Trial court reversed: A mistrial should have been declared after failing to continue the trial.

The Court of Appeal held that trial court abused its discretion in failing to grant Hughes a mistrial. The trial court could have salvaged the trial by continuing it and allowing the defense to locate, prepare, and consult with an expert to rebut the surprise expert causation testimony after the defense first objected. With no adequate remedy but a mistrial, the Court of Appeals reversed Hughes’s convictions.

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