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State v. Hupf

Supreme Court of Delaware

December 9, 1953

STATE
v.
HUPF.

Motorist was indicted for involuntary manslaughter. The Superior Court of New Castle County certified questions of law to the Supreme Court for answer. The Supreme Court, Southerland, C. J., held that death resulting proximately from commission by a motorist of an unlawful act not a felony or tending to great bodily harm constitutes involuntary manslaughter without proof of conscious or reckless disregard of lives or safety of others.

Questions answered in the affirmative.

[48 Del. 255] H. Albert Young, Atty. Gen., and E. N. Carpenter, II, Deputy Atty. Gen., for the State.

Newton White and Carroll F. Poole, Wilmington, for defendant.

SOUTHERLAND, C. J., and WOLCOTT and TUNNELL, JJ., sitting.

SOUTHERLAND, Chief Justice.

The Superior Court of New Castle County has certified to us for answer, pursuant to Art. IV, § 11(9) of the Constitution, questions of law growing out of a prosecution for manslaughter.

The essential question is whether the crime of involuntary manslaughter is established by proof of death resulting proximately from the commission of an unlawful act, or whether there must also be proof of conduct evidencing reckless disregard for the lives or safety of others.

The facts are these:

Defendant was involved in an automobile accident when the car that he was driving collided with another car. As a result of the collision a passenger in his car was killed.

Defendant was indicted for manslaughter. The indictment was in six counts. Four of these counts charged violations of four sections of the Delaware Motor Vehicle Laws embodying [48 Del. 256] rules of the road. The other two counts charged ‘ common law manslaughter’ and failure to keep a proper lookout. The case was tried by the court without a jury. The State established, and the defendant admitted, the violation of the four sections of the motor vehicle laws as charged in the indictment. The court found, however, that the State had failed to establish a reckless disregard for the life and safety of others so as to make the defendant guilty of ‘ common law manslaughter’ i. g., criminal negligence.

Upon considering the verdict to be rendered, the court found that a conflict existed in the rulings of our trial courts defining the elements of the crime of involuntary manslaughter. To resolve this conflict it has certified to us for answer the following questions:

‘ A. If death results from the Violation of a motor vehicle law of the State of Delaware providing for rules

Page 356

of the road, is a finding of guilty of manslaughter justified without any showing of a reckless disregard for the life and safety of others sufficient to establish common law manslaughter?

‘ B. If death is a proximate result of the violation of Section 100(a) of the Motor Vehicle Laws of the State of Delaware, is defendant guilty of manslaughter under Paragraph 5161 Revised Code of Delaware (1935) despite no showing of a reckless disregard for the life and safety of others so as to establish common law manslaughter?

‘ C. If death is a proximate result of the violation of Section 100(b) of the Motor Vehicle Laws of the State of Delaware, is defendant guilty of manslaughter under Paragraph 5161 Revised Code of Delaware (1935) despite no showing of a reckless disregard for the life and safety of others so as to establish common law manslaughter?

‘ D. If death is a proximate result of the violation of Section 85(c) of the Motor Vehicle Laws of the State of Delaware, is defendant guilty of manslaughter under Paragraph 5161 Revised [48 Del. 257] Code of Delaware (1935) despite no showing of a reckless disregard for the life and safety of others so as to establish common law manslaughter?

‘ E. If death is a proximate result of the violation of Section 85(a) of the Motor Vehicle Laws of the State of Delaware, is defendant guilty of manslaughter under Paragraph 5161 Revised Code of Delaware (1935) despite no showing of a reckless disregard for the life and safety of others so as to establish common law manslaughter?’

To answer these questions we must determine the elements of the species of the crime of manslaughter that involves an unintentional killing and hence is called ‘ involuntary manslaughter’ . Since our statute, 11 Del.C. § 575, contains no definition, we must look to common-law principles. The classic definition is that of Blackstone, ‘ the unlawful killing of another * * * involuntarily, but in the commission of some unlawful act.’ Com. Vol. 4, p. 191. It is clear from the illustrations in Blackstone's text that by the phrase ‘ unlawful act’ the learned author meant either an act unlawful in itself or a lawful act done ‘ in an unlawful manner, and without due caution and circumspection.’ Id. p. 192.

The textbooks have followed generally this division of involuntary manslaughter into two classes, one characterized by the commission of an unlawful act, and the other by the doing of a lawful act in a negligent (or grossly negligent) manner.

‘ Involuntary manslaughter, according to the old writers, is where death results unintentionally, so far as the defendant is concerned, from an unlawful act on his part, not amounting to a felony, or from a lawful act negligently performed.’ 1 Wharton, Homicide, § 107.

‘ Definition.-Involuntary manslaughter is a homicide committed unintentionally, but without excuse, and not under such circumstances as to raise ...


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