Friday, April 03, 2009

People v. Dawson (Cal. Ct. App. - April 2, 2009)

There's a lot in here that I think we all can agree with. Including but not limited to the opening line of Justice Richman's opinion, in which he says: "We see, yet again, the tragic consequences that can result from the mixture of boating and alcohol—here, the death of Mark Spier." With that I definitely agree. Don't drink and boat.

That said, this is not your ordinary drunk boating case. At all.

Everyone agrees that the defendant, William Dawson, is properly charged with a variety of misdemeanors, including but not limited to "BWI" (boating while intoxicated, which is actually called, inter alia, "unlawful operation of a vessel while under the influence of alcohol"). The dispute is whether he's properly charged with a felony; e.g., "unlawful operation of a vessel while intoxicated resulting in bodily injury." Those felony charges would totally be permissible in the usual case, in which the defendant is drunk and slams into another boat or runs over someone peacefully waterskiiing. That'd be a no brainer.

But here, the primary -- and unfortunate -- person who was doing most of the totally unsafe drinking and boating was the victim, Mark Spier. Spier got increasingly intoxicated over the course of a day of boating, had a blood alcohol content of 0.22 at the time of his death, and also had methamphetamine and Diazepam in his system. Which is, in my mind, pretty much the sole reason why he died. As the afternoon went on, "Spier was paying less attention to directions and getting more difficult to deal with" by the various people on the boat. For example, about ten minutes before the accident, Spier got in the water to ski, stashing a beer or two in his life vest before entering (!). But he was way too drunk to waterski, and eventually climbed back into the boat. Everyone encouraged Spier to skip waterskiing for the day because he was obviously too intoxicated, but Spier insisted that he wanted to ski, and got more and more agitated and angry that the waterskiing was not working out.

During all of this, the boat started drifting a little too close to shore, and Tyler Martino -- who had been driving the boat all day (and only drinking a little bit, if at all) -- was out of the driver's seat. While people were shouting at the drunken Spier to calm down and relax and not worry about not waterskiing for the day, the defendant (Dawson) started backing the boat away from the shore, very slowly and smoothly. At which point Spier suddenly said "Fuck it," and jumped into the water -- basically directly into the boat's spinning propeller. As one of the witnesses put it (entirely accurately): "He jumped in and he was dead."

So, again, don't drink and boat. But the question here is: Is Dawson guilty of a felony for killing Spier? Or was Spier's unilateral decision to jump off the boat into the propeller a "superceding" intervening factor which leaves Dawson guilty of a midemeanor (of course) for his taking brief control of the boat from Martino but innocent of the much more serious felony charges of causing Spier's death while intoxicated? As you can imagine, lots -- lots -- rides on this.

Below, the magistrate who conducted the preliminary hearing dismissed the felony charges on the ground that Dawson was not the promixate cause of Spier‘s death, and when the People filed an appeal, the superior court delined to reinstate the charges. But, in this opinion, the Court of Appeal reverses and remands.

Definitely check out the opinion to see the various competing opinions. The Sonoma County District Attorney, for example, argues on appeal that a defendant is guilty of BWI causing death even if the victim "jumped, was pushed, lost his balance and fell, or was struck by lightening and fell" into a propeller -- a fairly shocking (and I think erroneous) argument, and one that even Justice Richman isn't prepared to adopt. But Justice Richman concludes that Dawson properly is charged with a felony because it was "foreseeable" that Spier would end up in the water and thus subject to the risk of harm from a moving propeller.

This seems a bit aggressive too me. I'm not saying it's an outrageous statement, and I see the argument. I nonetheless think that, at some point, other events -- including the completely irrational decision of a drunk individual to jump into a propeller -- break the chain of causation such that you can't say that the illegality of the defendant "caused" the death. And this, in my view, is one of those cases. If -- and I'm fairly persuaded that this is the case -- even a totally sober person would have done exactly what Dawson did, and would in no way have been able to prevent the accident, it seems difficult for me to believe that his intoxication "caused" the death and hence justifies a boatload of years in prison. (Please forgive the inadvertent pun.)

A great case to round out the week. And, in the immortal words of Michael Conrad (as Sergeant Phil Esterhaus on Hill Street Blues), if you're going boating this weekend, remember: "Let's be careful out there."