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State v. Leger

Supreme Court of Louisiana

June 26, 2019

STATE OF LOUISIANA
v.
DAVID LEGER

          ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF APPEAL, FIRST CIRCUIT, PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE

          CLARK, J.

         We granted certiorari in this case to review a judgment of the First Circuit Court of Appeal that modified defendant David Leger's five vehicular homicide convictions to negligent homicide, vacated his sentences and remanded for resentencing. Specifically, we consider whether the state presented sufficient evidence that defendant's intoxication was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, as provided in La. R.S. 14:32.1. After reviewing the applicable law and the evidence, we find the state proved by sufficient evidence that defendant's intoxication was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, and, thus, vacate the court of appeal judgment, reinstate the trial court judgment, and remand for the court of appeal to consider the pretermitted assignments of error.

         FACTS

         On March 13, 2011, around 8:30 p.m., Kelsye Hall was driving her green Mercedes SUV westbound on I-10 in the Prairieville area. She was the sole occupant of that vehicle. Traveling in the same direction, defendant drove a white pick-up truck with his wife in the front passenger seat.[1] Independent witnesses Dara Soulier and Kevin Patton, who also were driving westbound on I-10 at the time, described at trial that defendant and Hall had engaged in what appeared to be "road rage" or a high-speed game of "cat and mouse" over a course of several miles. Hall's vehicle was the lead vehicle, and according to Soulier, it appeared that Hall was attempting to prevent defendant from passing.

         Hall testified at trial as a state witness, but she disputed the independent witnesses' descriptions of her behavior.[2] Hall indicated that as she was driving on I-10, defendant approached from the rear and began to flash his vehicle's high beams while he drove behind her. Hall admitted that she repeatedly changed lanes in moderate traffic but explained that she did so in an effort to allow defendant to pass her, which he never did.

         Just before the Highland Road exit in East Baton Rouge Parish, the left rear bumper of defendant's truck collided with the front right bumper of Hall's vehicle.[3]The collision sent defendant's truck across the median and into the eastbound lanes of I-10 where he first collided with an 18-wheeler and then with a vehicle driven by Effie Fontenot; her three sons, Austin Fontenot, Hunter Johnson, and Keagan Fontenot; and her co-worker, Kimberly Stagg. The Fontenot vehicle caught fire, and none of its occupants were able to escape.

         Soulier testified at trial that although she never actually saw defendant's truck on the shoulder of the roadway, she observed a vehicle's taillights on the shoulder just before the collision between defendant's and Hall's vehicles. Patton testified that defendant's white truck was on the shoulder at the time of the collision. Hall initially testified that defendant's vehicle was on the shoulder at the time of the collision, but she described on cross-examination that her own vehicle was straddling both lanes of the interstate because she no longer knew what to do to get defendant to pass her. On redirect, Hall again stated that defendant was on the shoulder when he attempted to pass her.[4]

         Defendant voluntarily gave a blood sample at the hospital just over two hours after the crash. The parties stipulated at trial that a test of this sample showed a blood alcohol concentration ("BAC") of 0.10 percent. State troopers also recovered from defendant's mangled truck a partially empty, but intact and capped, bottle of Captain Morgan spiced rum. State Trooper Burnell Thomspon, an officer who had been at the accident scene and then relocated to the hospital to secure defendant's blood sample, testified at trial that he believed defendant had been drinking, but did not articulate any particular facts upon which that suspicion was based (e.g., an odor of alcohol, behavioral manifestations, etc.). Hall submitted to a breathalyzer test that showed no indication of alcohol consumption.

         Defendant called as his sole witness an expert in accident reconstruction, Michael Gillen. Gillen opined that the sudden redirection of defendant's truck was the result of the collision with Hall's vehicle, which effectively resulted in the application of a Precision Immobilization Technique (PIT) maneuver. [5] He described that no person, drunk or sober, could avoid the change in direction that resulted. Gillen explained that although tire marks indicated defendant's vehicle rotated counter-clockwise through the median, this rotation had ceased by the time defendant's vehicle exited the median. He estimated the time defendant spent in the median as one-and-one-half seconds, meaning that defendant took corrective steering measures within a normal (i.e., sober) range of perception.

         Given the aforementioned facts and evidence, the jury found defendant guilty as charged of five counts of vehicular homicide. See La. R.S. 14:32.1. However, the court of appeal found that the state failed to carry its burden of proving that defendant's intoxication was a contributing factor to the deaths of the five victims. See State v. Leger, 17-0461, p.12 (La.App. 1 Cir. 11/15/17), 236 So.3d 577 at 586. While the court acknowledged that the defendant was intoxicated, it found that the jury "did not have further evidence as to defendant's appearance, observable signs of impairment, the effect of such a blood alcohol level upon a reasonable person, or other evidence from which to reasonably infer beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant's intoxication was a contributing factor to this collision . . . ." Id., 17-0461, p. 14, 236 So.3d at 587. Finding the proof of defendant's actions sufficient to support convictions for negligent homicide, see La. R.S. 14:32, the court of appeal modified the verdicts and vacated defendant's sentences accordingly. See Leger, 17-0461, p. 15, 236 So.3d at 588.[6]

         We granted the state's writ application to review the court of appeal judgment. See State v. Leger, 17-2084 (La. 1/18/19), So. 3d, 2019 WL 290250.

         DISCUSSION

         In the briefs submitted to the Court and at oral argument, the parties acknowledged that the facts, for the most part, are not in dispute. However, the state urges this Court to make one distinct finding with regard to causation. The state submits that in a vehicular homicide case, the prosecution does not have to prove a defendant's intoxication was the sole cause of the killing. See State v. Beene, 49, 612 (La.App. 2 Cir. 4/15/15), 164 So.3d 299; State in the Interest of R.V., 11-0138 (La.App. 5 Cir. 12/13/11), 82 So.3d 402; and State v. Thomas, 05-2210 (La.App. 1 Cir. 6/9/06), 938 So.2d 168). The state argues that the evidence presented at trial was sufficient to prove that defendant's operation of his vehicle in an intoxicated condition resulted in defendant's losing control of his vehicle and colliding with the victims. The state posits that the guilty verdicts indicate the jury reasonably rejected defendant's claim that his intoxication was not a direct, proximate cause of the deaths of the five victims.

         Defendant, on the other hand, argues that no witnesses at trial described behaviors or manifestations of his alleged impairment. He argues that nothing the jury considered could have led them to reasonably conclude that his intoxication was a contributing factor to the accident or to distinguish his actions from the reckless behavior of Kelsye Hall, who, indisputably, was not intoxicated. Thus, defendant asks this Court to affirm the appellate court judgment.

         At the time of the fatal accident, the vehicular homicide statute read, in pertinent part:

A. Vehicular homicide is the killing of a human being caused proximately or caused directly by an offender engaged in the operation of, or in actual physical control of, any motor vehicle . . . whether or not the offender had the intent to cause death or great bodily harm, whenever any of the following conditions exists and such condition was a contributing factor to the killing:
(1) The operator is under the influence of alcoholic beverages as determined by chemical tests administered under the provisions of R.S. 32:662.
(2) The operator's blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent or more by weight based upon grams of alcohol per one hundred cubic centimeters of blood.

La. R.S. 14:32.1 (prior to amendment by 2012 La. Acts 662, et al.) (emphasis added).[7]

         The seminal Louisiana vehicular homicide case is State v. Taylor, 463 So.2d 1274 (La. 1985). In Taylor, the defendant moved to quash the bill of information, alleging the unconstitutionality of a ...


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