Tuesday, June 14, 2005

People v. Brady (Cal. Ct. App. - June 2, 2005)

Brady accidentally starts a forest fire when cooking some methamphetamine. Okay, that's a bad thing. He should definitely be punished for it. No doubt. And the jury properly convicts him of both manufacturing methamphetamine and unlawfully starting a fire on forest land. I've got no problem with that. Lock him up. I've got no problem with his conviction thus far.

But the prosecution also charges him with murder. Based solely upon the deaths of two pilots who crashed their planes into each other while fighting the fire. And the jury convicts Brady of recklessly starting a fire that caused the death of these two pilots, and as a result, he's sentenced to 13+ years in jail. And even though it's crystal clear that the pilots crashed into each other only because one of them was flying totally erratically -- below the tree line and in the opposite direction he was supposed to be flying -- Justice Pollak holds in this case that this fact utterly doesn't matter: that Brady is still responsible for these deaths notwithstanding the time-honored concept of "proximate cause".

Sorry. I can't agree. Even if you start a fire, that doesn't make you responsible for every consequence that might result, however unexpected. Which is essentially what Justice Pollack holds. That's inconsistent with what we've always taught as proximate cause. This is not a strict liability offense. You're only responsible for the foreseeable consequences. And a pilot flying the utterly erratic way that the pilot at issue was flying was not a properly foreseeable event.

By the way, if you were on the jury, when deciding whether or not to find Brady guilty of these deaths, would it matter to you if you learned that the pilot who was erratically flying the plane responsible for the collision was legally drunk? That maybe this was why he was flying in the wrong direction and in the manner that caused the accident? Well, the trial court entirely excluded this evidence -- alongside the fact that the postmortem of the pilot revealed that was, in fact, legally drunk when he flew the plane. And Justice Pollak affirms, holding (1) that no jury would have been at all influenced by these facts, and also (2) that, in any event, the defendant did not prove that the pilot being drunk definitely caused the collision, only that it "could" have caused it, and that this is insufficient.

Absurd. It might well have made a difference. Plus, the defendant's offer of proof was clearly sufficient -- they even had an expert on the subject of the consequences of pilots flying drunk -- and Justice Pollak's statement that the pilot's drunkenness couldn't have caused the accident because the pilot had made six successful prior drops of fire retardant is just plain silly.

This is a long opinion, but one that seems utterly results-oriented, with Justice Pollak holding whatever is necessary to lock this guy up for 14 years. Which is not the way law should be made. Look, Brady is rightly responsible for any foreseeable consequences of his acts. So if someone sets fire to a house or drives 100 miles an hour to evade police and people die because they burn in the house or the defendant collides with them, then sure, he's liable. But you're not liable just because you commit a crime and some idiot decides to fly a plane when he's legally drunk and -- shockingly -- doesn't do a very good job at it, and as a result, people die. That's not a proximate cause of the crime. Which is why, on the facts of this case, Justice Pollack is wrong. And I think pretty seriously wrong, at that.