Sunday, June 1, 2008

Driving Inattentively--the Right way.

State v. Bayly (HSC May 29, 2008)

Background. When the police came to a parking lot in Wailuku, they found Bayly standing beside his poorly-parked truck. The parking lot is raised about a six inches above the ground. The front driver's side of the truck was hanging off the parking lot and onto the grass. One wheel was hanging over the edge of the parking lot. The officer noticed no damage to Bayly's car. The police did notice, however, that Bayly was not sober. He had 0.068 grams BAC. Bayly later admitted to drinking two beers. The State charged him with operating under the influence and inattention to driving. At trial, Bayly explained that he was unsure of his parking space so he slowly touched the yellow parking "bumper," but it was loose and gave way. The district court acquitted Bayly of operating under the influence, but found him guilty of inattention to driving. The ICA affirmed.

The Problem with Inattentive Driving. A person is guilty of inattention to driving when that person "operates any vehicle without due care or in a manner as to cause a collision with, or injury or damage to, . . . any person, vehicle or other property[.]" HRS § 291-12. The HSC pointed out that the statute can be read in two ways. Under one reading, a person commits the crime when he or she drives a car either without due care or in a way that results in a collision with or injury/damage to a person/thing. Thus, a person can be guilty if he or she drives a car without due care. This is how the ICA read the statute in State v. Momoki, 98 Hawai'i 188, 198, 46 P.3d 1, 8 (App. 2002). The HSC, however, held that this interpretation is absurd because any "slip[] in attention or other instances of 'inattentiveness' while driving, such as momentarily taking one's eyes off the read, even when no harm results," would be criminal conduct. Furthermore, to be liable for merely driving without due care may be unconstitutionally vague. Finally, Hawai'i cases suggest that a collision or damage is required for liability.

The Unitary Approach. The HSC held that inattention to driving arises when the person (1) operates a vehicle without due care or in a manner; (2) as to cause a collision with or injury to person or property; and (3) the person did so knowingly, intelligently, or recklessly. This reading, according to the HSC, avoids the constitutional problems and absurdities. It also overrules Momoki. The HSC went on to explain that why the third element calls for general intent. The statute does not call for "negligence" but a lack of due care. This is not the same under the Hawai'i Penal Code. Criminal negligence requires something more than a mere lack of due care--even though lack of due care is often the standard for civil negligence. HRS § 702-206(4). This interpretation, therefore, also overrules the part in State v. Reyes, 77 Haw. 533, 53-35, 560 P.2d 114, 115-16 (1977), where the HSC equated "lack of due care" with negligence. In other words, this means that a person can only be liable when he or she drives without due care thereby causing a collision or injury/damage or in a way to cause a collision or injury/damage.

Finding a Collision. The HSC held that both the district court and the ICA erred in concluding that there was sufficient evidence of a collision. Although the bottom of Bayly's truck made contact with the parking lot surface, it was too incidental to arise to a "collision." The word "collision" is not defined in HRS chapter 291 and thus the HSC looked to extrinsic aids and other cases to find the colloquial rather than technical meaning of the word. See HRS § 1-14. The HSC adopted the definition from a territorial case: a collision arises when a vehicle comes "in contact with some other vehicle or perpendicular object obstructing the course of its progress." Alexander v. Home Ins. Co., 27 Haw. 326, 328-29 (Terr. 1923). The HSC found no collision under this colloquial understanding. The bottom of Bayly's truck may have hit the parking lot surface, but that was not a perpendicular object obstructing its path. Thus, the HSC reversed the judgment.

Just how Unitary is it? So what exactly is a collision in the colloquial sense? The slightest tapping of any object standing in the way of a car's path, like a traffic cone, certainly is "contact with some other . . . perpendicular object obstructing the course" of the driver's progress. Does this mean that if a driver recklessly or even intentionally knocks down a traffic cone, he or she is guilty of inattentive driving? After all, the HSC explained that the disjunctive "or" in between the words "without due care or in a manner" must be read as a conjunctive "and" in order to harmonize the phrase as a whole. In re City and County of Honolulu Corp. Counsel, 54 Haw. 356, 374, 507 P.2d 169, 178 (1973). The HSC did not, however, see this need when it came to the "or" residing between "collision with" and "injury or damage to." Furthermore, the HSC pointed out that the bottom of Bayly's truck was not damaged thereby suggesting that the only way for him to be guilty would be with a finding of a collision.

It seems there still are two ways to be guilty of inattentive driving--either cause a collision, no matter how slight, or injury/damage a person/property. The HSC rejected the Momoki reading of the statute partly because it invited absurd results--such as the slightest inattentions without respect to any harm done. If intentionally hitting a cone is just as harmless as not looking at the road for a second, then isn't that just as absurd? This is puzzling.

Justice Nakayama's Concurrence. Justice Nakayama concurred in the result only.

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