Jury Instruction Was “Accurate,” Not Misleading: Appeals Court Affirms Evading Responsibility Judgment

In a recent criminal law matter, the Appellate Court of Connecticut rejected a defendant’s claim that the trial court’s jury instruction regarding the elements of evasion of responsibility was misleading.

This case arose from an incident that occurred on the night of July 16, 2001, in Bridgeport, CT. The defendant consumed six beers in three and a half hours before and while eating dinner. He left the restaurant in his truck and approached the same intersection as the victim, who was on a motorcycle. Without signaling, the defendant turned into the victim’s path, and despite significant effort to avoid a collision, the victim struck the back end of the truck. The victim was thrown from his motorcycle and died from his injuries. A witness observed the accident and later testified that “the truck then stopped, the defendant stepped out of the truck, looked, got back in and took off.” Police pursued the defendant, who stopped only after he was forced to by a second police cruiser. The defendant was visibly intoxicated, and blood alcohol tests produced readings of 0.172 and 0.167, over twice the legal limit.

The defendant was charged with second-degree manslaughter, second-degree manslaughter with a motor vehicle, and evading responsibility, in violation of Connecticut General Statutes (CGS) §§ 53a-56(a)(1), 53a-56b(a), and 14-224(a), respectively. At trial, the defendant testified that “while he was turning left, after giving a signal, he felt an impact toward the rear of his truck, saw nothing and thought someone had hit his vehicle and driven off.” The defendant was convicted on the second two counts. He appealed his conviction, arguing, in part, that the trial court did not properly instruct the jury regarding the elements of evading responsibility. Specifically, he claimed:

1)      The court misled the jury by using the word “prevent” rather than “unable” with respect to reporting requirements of CGS § 14-224(a).

2)      The court improperly instructed the jury that it had to find that “some outside force caused the defendant to be unable to report the information,” rather than “the defendant’s being unable to report for any cause or reason.”

3)      The court did not instruct the jury that the defendant was legally excused from the remaining statutory requirements because he was arrested while seeking assistance for the victim.

The Appellate Court was not persuaded by any of these arguments. Because the defendant did not draw a sufficient distinction between the use of “prevent” and “unable,” the court’s use of the first word was harmless. The Court reiterated that CGS § 14-224(a) does not provide any legal excuse for failing to stop. As the legislative history indicates, “failure to stop immediately cannot be cured at some later time by an operator reporting the incident to police.” As such, a reasonable jury could find that the defendant did not immediately stop and render assistance to the victim following the collision, and by leaving the scene he was not satisfying his duties under the statute. The Appellate Court found that the jury instruction, as given, was proper and did not deprive the defendant of a fair trial.

When faced with a charge of evading responsibility, an individual is best served by consulting with an experienced criminal law practitioner. Should you have any questions regarding criminal defense, please do not hesitate to contact Attorney Joseph C. Maya in the firm’s Westport office in Fairfield County at 203-221-3100 or at JMaya@Mayalaw.com.

Written by Lindsay E. Raber, Esq.