This is an audio case brief of State v. Larson, 103 P.3d 524 (2004). The audio brief provides a full case analysis. However a written summary of the case is provided below.
On the evening hours of November 10, and the early morning hours of November 11, Mark Larson went out drinking with his friends. He admitted he and two other college friends Morgan and Claire had been drinking at various residences and bars as well as in his vehicle in that evening. Larson admitted he had consumed between ten and twelve drinks, including whiskey, during the evening.
Around 3:30 a.m, on November 11 2001, Larson drove his pick-up track with his friends in it at high speed on a frontage road between the Conrad and Brady residential area. The track veered off the right shoulder of the road surface near the beginning of the left curve. Larson pulled the pickup back onto the asphalt surface but overcorrected. The overcorrection sent the pickup across the highway and into the left barrow ditch. When he attempted to ride-out the ditch, the pickup rolled over two and a quarter times, and ejected the three occupants. None of the occupants were wearing a seatbelt at the time. Larson and Morgan escaped without serious injuries, but Claire sustained blunt-force trauma to the head and died as a result of his injuries.
Larson later admitted that he had been momentarily distracted during a conversation with Clare and drifted off the right side of the roadway. An analysis of Larson’s blood sample taken three hours after the accident showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.12%
Larson was charged with and convicted on one count of negligent homicide for the death of Clare, amoung other misdemeanors charges for his failure to wear a seatbelt, for driving under the influence, and for speeding.
After trail and before deliberation, both the state and the defendant submitted proposed instructions to the district court. Larson objected to one of the instructions the judge gave to the jury concerning the definition of criminal negligence.
The instruction read as follows:
A person acts negligently with respect to the death of a human being or to a circumstance when an act is done with a conscious disregard of the risk that death of a human being will occur or that the circumstance exists or when the person disregards a risk of causing the death of another human being which the person should be aware that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists.
The risk must be of a nature and degree that to disregard it involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation. ‘Gross deviation’ means a deviation that is considerably greater than lack of ordinary care.
Larson objected to the instruction on the ground that the word “consciously” should have been inserted before the word “regards” in defining criminal negligence. So that the last part of the instruction would read, “ or when the person consciously disregards a risk of causing the death of another.” This way in order to be found guilty, the state would have a heightened standard of proof to show that he consciously disregarded the risk to another.
The district court overruled his objection to the instruction.
Larson then appealed his conviction all the way to the state’s supreme court.
The issue before the court is whether the district court properly instructed the jury on the definition of negligent homicide.
A person commits negligent homicide if the person negligently causes the death of another human being.
A person acts negligently with respect to a result or circumstance, “when the person consciously disregards a risk that the result will occur or that the circumstance exists or when the person disregards a risk of which the person should be aware that the result will occur or the circumstance exists.”
Further, the risk “must be of a nature and degree that to disregard it involves a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe in the actor’s situation.”
The term “gross deviation” is defined by the statute as meaning “a deviation that is considerably greater than lack of ordinary care.”
The court found that the district court did not err in the jury instructions on defining negligent homicide. The court reasoned that a defendant’s mental state is not at issue in negligent homicide cases. Negligent homicide only requires a gross deviation from reasonable standard of care. Therefore, Larson’s mental state at the time he was driving his car is not at issue. Instead the issue is whether the driving of a car while intoxicated was a gross deviation from the standard of reasonable care.
The court added that it is difficult to imagine that conduct, which included drinking both beer and whiskey over many hours, disregarding the prevailing notion that drinking and driving is dangerous, and then getting behind the wheel of a vehicle and driving down an isolated county road at a speed in excess of the speed limit, could not be classed as a gross deviation that is considerably greater than the lack of ordinary care.
Larson also argued that the inference of impairment resulting from his 0.12% blood alcohol concentration was rebutted by other evidence indicating the accident was caused by a momentary lapse of attention while driving on a dangerous road.
Again, the court disagreed with Larson. The court found that the State provided sufficient evidence of Larson’s impairment to support Larson’s conviction for negligent homicide and driving under the influence. Because the State presented evidence Larson drank a substantial amount of alcohol during the evening and morning hours before the accident. Further, Larson admitted to EMTs and officers at the hospital he had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. The State also showed Larson drove his pickup at a high rate of speed off the shoulder of the highway, causing the pickup to roll over and eject all three passengers. The State’s expert witness testified the driving ability of anyone with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08% or more is impaired or diminished. The jury in this case also heard testimony Larson’s blood alcohol concentration was 0.12% two hours after the accident and four hours after he had stopped drinking.
In conclusion, the court upheld Larson’s conviction because he the opportunity to present his case to the jury. If the jury believed his account of event, the jury would have found in his favor.