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Pardo v. State

Supreme Court of Delaware

April 26, 2017

GABRIEL F. PARDO, Defendant Below-Appellant,
v.
STATE OF DELAWARE, Plaintiff Below-Appellee.

          Submitted: February 22, 2017

         Court Below: Superior Court of the State of Delaware Cr. Id. No. 1409011585

         Upon appeal from the Superior Court. AFFIRMED.

          Julianne E. Murray, Esquire (argued), MurrayPhillips, P.A., Georgetown, Delaware for Appellant.

          Sean P. Lugg, Esquire, and Andrew J. Vella, Esquire (argued), Delaware Department of Justice, Wilmington, Delaware for Appellee.

          Before VALIHURA, VAUGHN, and SEITZ, Justices.

          VALIHURA, Justice

         I. INTRODUCTION

         On October 2, 2015, Appellant Gabriel F. Pardo ("Pardo") was convicted of Manslaughter, Leaving the Scene of a Collision Resulting in Death ("LSCRD"), Reckless Driving, and six counts of Endangering the Welfare of a Child. The charges arose from his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run collision with a bicyclist, Phillip Bishop ("Bishop"), on September 12, 2014 at approximately 8:30 p.m. on Brackenville Road in Hockessin. The principal issue raised in this appeal is whether Pardo's conviction for LSCRD violated his Due Process rights, as he contends that the LSCRD statute imposes strict liability. Pardo also contends that the Superior Court erred by adding a voluntary intoxication instruction to the pattern jury instruction for manslaughter, by denying his motion for judgment of acquittal, and by denying his request for a missing evidence instruction.

         We conclude that the statute governing LSCRD, 21 Del. C. § 4202, does not impose strict liability because it requires the State to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant had knowledge that he or she was involved in a collision. Because we find Pardo's other arguments without merit, we AFFIRM his conviction and sentence.

         II. RELEVANT FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Pardo received a three-year sentence for his conviction for LSCRD under 21 Del. C. § 4202 ("Section 4202"). Section 4202 provides, in relevant part:

(a) The driver of any vehicle involved in a[] collision resulting in injury or death to any person shall immediately stop such vehicle at the scene of such collision. Said stop should be made as close to the scene of the collision as possible without obstructing traffic more than necessary. The driver shall give the driver's name, address and the registration number of the driver's vehicle and exhibit a driver's license or other documentation of driving privileges to the person struck or the driver or occupants of any vehicle collided with and shall render to any person injured in such collision reasonable assistance, including the carrying of such person to a hospital or physician or surgeon for medical or surgical treatment if it is apparent that such treatment is necessary or is requested by the injured person, or by contacting appropriate law-enforcement or emergency personnel and awaiting their arrival.
(b) Whoever violates subsection (a) of this section when that person has been involved in a collision resulting in injury to any person shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor, be fined not less than $1, 000 nor more than $3, 000 or imprisoned not less than 1 year nor more than 2 years.
(c) Whoever violates subsection (a) of this section when that person has been involved in a collision resulting in death to any person shall be guilty of a class E felony. The provisions of § 4206(a) or § 4217 of Title 11 or any other statute to the contrary notwithstanding, the sentence for such offense shall include a period of incarceration of not less than 1 year and the first 6 months of any sentence imposed shall not be suspended.[1]

         Pardo argued to the trial court that Section 4202 unconstitutionally imposes a felony conviction and a minimum mandatory period of imprisonment without requiring the State to prove the defendant's mental culpability. The Superior Court disagreed, concluding that Section 4202 constitutionally imposes strict liability.[2] The Superior Court held, in the alternative, that the statute is constitutional as applied to Pardo, reasoning that Pardo "knew he was in a collision" and "knowingly and intentionally left the scene of the collision without first determining whether anyone was injured or killed."[3]

         On appeal, Pardo contends that Section 4202, as a strict liability statute, is unconstitutional under a test set forth in Morissette v. United States because conviction results in a relatively large penalty and "gravely besmirche[s]" one's reputation.[4] We observe at the outset that this Court has not addressed the constitutionality of Section 4202 directly, and the issue of the mental state required, if any, is one of first impression.

         Both Pardo and the State suggest that our analysis in Hoover v. State, [5] which involved another provision of the Motor Vehicle Code, should guide our resolution of the issues involving the mental state required in Section 4202. In Hoover, we considered two certified questions of law, namely, (1) whether the "general liability provisions" of 11 Del. C. § 251(b) applied to 21 Del. C. § 4176A, which penalizes the operation of a motor vehicle causing death ("Section 4176A"), and (2) whether Section 4176A was unconstitutionally vague. Section 4176A provided in part:

(a) A person is guilty of operation of a vehicle causing death when, in the course of driving or operating a motor vehicle or OHV in violation of any provision of this chapter other than § 4177 of this title, the person's driving or operation of the vehicle or OHV causes the death of another person.[6]

         This Court found that the plain language of Section 4176A reflected the General Assembly's unambiguous intention not to provide a requisite mental state for committing that offense. We observed that Section 4176A is an unclassified misdemeanor in the motor vehicle code and simply requires an underlying violation of the motor vehicle code. We concluded that the General Assembly's intent was to create an offense premised on a lower level of culpability than that required for vehicular homicide (requiring criminally negligent driving or operation of a motor vehicle), criminally negligent homicide (requiring criminal negligence), and manslaughter (requiring recklessness).[7] Applying Section 251(b) would have defeated the legislative purpose of establishing a lower level of culpability. Accordingly, in applying 11 Del. C. § 251(c) (concerning strict liability offenses), we concluded that "the General Assembly's intent to impose strict liability for deaths proximately caused by a moving violation of the Motor Vehicle Code 'plainly appears' in both the unambiguous language of the statute and its legislative history."[8]

         In considering the second certified question as to whether Section 4176A was unconstitutionally vague for failing to specify the state of mind required to find an actor guilty, citing Morissette, [9] we held that, because Section 4176A "is part of the state's motor vehicle code, it falls within the class of statutes that relate to the public safety and welfare and need not require a specific state of mind."[10] However, because the question was not before us, we expressly did not address whether the penalty provisions of Section 4176A (an unclassified misdemeanor) were unconstitutionally excessive as a strict liability offense.[11] Pardo now contends on appeal that, like Section 4176A, Section 4202 is a strict liability statute, but that this Court has not yet addressed the constitutionality of a strict liability crime that results in a felony conviction with minimum mandatory imprisonment.[12]

         In response, the State argues that Section 4202 is not a strict liability statute because it applies only where a defendant has knowledge that a collision occurred. At oral argument, Pardo argued that if the State is correct that Section 4202 does require knowledge, then, in addition to proving that the defendant knew that a collision occurred, the State must also prove the defendant's knowledge that the collision resulted in personal injury or death.

         III. DISCUSSION

         A. Scope and Standard of Review

         "Subject to State and Federal Constitutional limitations, 'the creation and definition of crimes under Delaware law is a matter for legislative enactment either through the Criminal Code or by another law.'"[13] "We review claims challenging the constitutionality of a statute de novo[.]"[14] When exercising this review, "there is a strong presumption that a legislative enactment is constitutional."[15] Accordingly, "[w]e resolve all doubts in favor of the challenged legislative act."[16] In addition, "we review legal rulings, including the interpretation of statutes, de novo."[17] "Where a statute contains unambiguous language that clearly reflects the intent of the legislature, then the language of the statute controls."[18] We "read each [relevant] section [of the statute] in light of all of the others to produce a harmonious whole.'"[19]

         B. Section 4202 Does Not Impose Strict Liability

         We affirm the Superior Court's conviction and sentence on its alternate ground that Section 4202 is not a strict liability statute. In this case, the absence of express language specifying a mental state, such as knowledge, does not mandate a conclusion that none is required and that the offense is a strict liability offense.[20] Rather, determining the mental state required requires construction of the statute and inference of the General Assembly's intent.[21] The plain language of the relevant statutory provisions is our starting point.

         In determining whether the General Assembly intended to impose strict liability for LSCRD, we look first to Section 251 of Title 11, which addresses the proof of state of mind required unless otherwise provided, as well as strict liability. Section 251 provides:

(a) No person may be found guilty of a criminal offense without proof that the person had the state of mind required by the law defining the offense or by subsection (b) of this section.
(b) When the state of mind sufficient to establish an element of an offense is not prescribed by law, that element is established if a person acts intentionally, knowingly or recklessly.
(c) It is unnecessary to prove the defendant's state of mind with regard to:
(1) Offenses which constitute violations, unless a particular state of mind is included within the definition of the offenses; or
(2) Offenses defined by statutes other than this Criminal Code, insofar as a legislative purpose to impose strict liability for such offenses or with respect to any material element thereof plainly appears.
In all cases covered by this subsection, it is nevertheless necessary to prove that the act or omission on which liability is based was voluntary as provided in §§ 242 and 243 of this title.[22]

         Section 251(c) makes clear that, in order for Section 4202 to impose strict liability, the General Assembly's intent to impose strict liability for a violation of Section 4202 resulting in death must "plainly appear." Otherwise, Section 251(b) instructs that the state of mind applicable to violation of Section 4202 would be intent, knowledge, or recklessness.[23]

         The State contends that, unlike Section 4176A construed in Hoover, Section 4202 is not a strict liability statute and, thus, the Morissette test does not apply. We agree and think that when the General Assembly makes an offense a felony, it cannot be said that "a legislative purpose to impose strict liability . . . plainly appears."[24] Instead, we conclude that a plain reading of the relevant statutory provisions reveals the General Assembly's intent to require the State to prove that the defendant knew he was involved in a collision and left the scene without fulfilling the statutory duties imposed in Section 4202.

         In reaching this conclusion, we observe that Section 4202 must be read in the context of the series of duties imposed in Chapter 42 of Title 21.[25] Read in pari materia, [26] Sections 4201 and 4202 impose upon drivers involved in collisions the duty to assess the nature and consequences of a collision before continuing on with their journey. Section 4201 provides, in relevant part:

(a) The driver of any vehicle involved in a collision resulting in apparent damage to property shall immediately stop such vehicle at the scene of the collision. Said stop should be made as close to the scene of the collision as possible without obstructing traffic more than necessary. The driver shall immediately undertake reasonable efforts to ascertain whether any person involved in the collision was injured or killed. If such collision resulted in injury or death, the driver shall comply with § 4203 of this title. If, after reasonably ascertaining that there are no injuries or deaths, and if the damaged vehicle is obstructing traffic, the driver of the vehicle must make every reasonable effort to move the vehicle or have it moved so as not to obstruct the regular flow of traffic more than necessary. If the damage resulting from such collision is to the property of the driver only, with no damage to the person, property of another, or the environment, the driver need not stay at the scene of the collision but shall immediately make a report of the damage resulting as required by § 4203 of this title.[27]

         The word "apparent" implies knowledge, as its common dictionary meaning is "visible, " "manifest, " or "obvious."[28] Section 4202 provides that drivers must stop and render reasonable assistance to persons who have been injured.[29] Once Sections 4201 and 4202 have been complied with, Section 4203 requires a driver to report to the police any collision resulting in injury, death, or property damage "to an apparent extent of $500 or more" or that "appears" to involve "a driver whose physical ability is impaired as a result of the use of alcohol or drugs or any combination thereof."[30]

         Taken together, Sections 4201 through 4203 establish a set of duties for drivers involved in collisions in Delaware.[31] On its face, Section 4201 requires a driver involved in a collision resulting in apparent damage to property to "immediately undertake reasonable efforts to ascertain whether any person involved in the collision was injured or killed."[32] Section 4202 requires drivers involved in a collision to stop and render reasonable assistance to those who have been harmed. Drivers logically must have knowledge that a collision has occurred before the duty to stop and render assistance can be triggered. It is not reasonable to believe the General Assembly intended for a penalty to be imposed for failure to perform certain duties if the driver was unaware of the collision.[33] The State's failure to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had knowledge of the collision would require a verdict of not guilty.

         Thus, based on our reading of Sections 4201 and 4202, we conclude that the General Assembly intended that the State must prove that the defendant had knowledge that a collision occurred but failed to stop. Because we discern a requisite mental state from the language of the relevant statutory provisions, the default mental state provision of Section 251(b) does not apply.

         Further, we reject Pardo's contention that if knowledge is required, then actual or constructive knowledge of injury or death is an element of the offense. Requiring knowledge of death or injury would be incompatible with the General Assembly's intent. That drivers are statutorily required by Section 4201 to stop and investigate the consequences of a collision suggests that the General Assembly intended that the duty to render aid would be triggered regardless of whether the driver knows prior to stopping that a person has been injured or killed.

         One obvious purpose of the statute is to ensure that persons injured in accidents receive prompt medical attention. One who is involved in the collision may be in the best position to ensure that those who are injured might receive the earliest possible medical attention. Requiring the State to prove the defendant's knowledge of the consequences of a collision would defeat the purpose of the statute by encouraging drivers to avoid knowledge by fleeing, rather than stopping to investigate whether anyone was seriously injured or killed. The General Assembly's decision to enhance the penalty for violation of Section 4202(a) to a felony punishable by a minimum of six months' imprisonment where death is involved furthers this purpose by removing the incentive for intoxicated drivers to flee the scene of a collision rather than stay and render assistance.[34]

         Moreover, requiring the State to prove the defendant's knowledge of death or injury would place an unrealistic burden on the prosecution. Although the State can prove a defendant's knowledge that a collision occurred inferentially using circumstantial evidence, [35] proving that a defendant had actual knowledge that someone was injured or killed would be extremely difficult in view of the defendant's flight from the scene.

         A number of jurisdictions with hit-and-run offenses have statutes that expressly contain an element of knowledge.[36] Courts in these jurisdictions are divided as to whether the knowledge element in the statute requires only knowledge that the collision occurred, or whether the state must also prove the defendant's knowledge that the collision resulted in injury or damage.[37] Here, the most analogous cases are those arising in jurisdictions where statutes are silent as to a mental state. As discussed above, silence does not dispense with the mens rea inquiry.[38] The vast majority of courts construing these statutes have determined that knowledge is required, [39] but they are divided as to whether knowledge of the collision alone is required to hold a driver accountable, [40] or whether the prosecution must prove both the driver's knowledge of his involvement in a collision and that he knew death or injury resulted.[41] Jurisdictions in the latter category typically require knowledge of the injuries sustained as a result of the accident, or that the accident was of such a nature that a person involved in it would reasonably anticipate that bodily injury or death had occurred.[42]

         We conclude that our statutory scheme requires proof of a defendant's knowledge of his involvement in a collision, and that actual or constructive knowledge of injury or death is not an element of the offense. Section 4202 imposes a duty on drivers who know they are involved in a collision to stop and assess whether any harm has occurred to persons or property. In this case, in addition to the direct evidence of knowledge available from Pardo's testimony, [43] the extent of the damage to Pardo's vehicle and the force exercised upon it by the collision support the Superior Court's finding that Pardo knew that the vehicle he was driving was involved in a collision.[44] Accordingly, we reject Pardo's constitutional challenges to Section 4202 and affirm the Superior Court's conviction under Section 4202.

         C. Pardo's Other Claims Lack Merit

         1. The Superior Court Did Not Abuse Its Discretion By Considering Evidence of Pardo's Voluntary Intoxication ...


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