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COMMONWEALTH PENNSYLVANIA v. ROBERT HICKS (10/19/83)

SUPREME COURT OF PENNSYLVANIA


decided: October 19, 1983.

COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA, APPELLANT
v.
ROBERT HICKS

No. 1 W.D. Appeal Docket, 1983, Appeal from the Order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County, Criminal Division, at No. CC8203243A, dated November 30, 1982, granting Appellee's Motion to Quash the Information.

COUNSEL

Robert E. Colville, Dist. Atty., Robert L. Eberhardt, Deputy Dist. Atty., Pittsburgh, Leroy S. Zimmerman, Atty. Gen., Marion E. MacIntyre, Andrew S. Gordon, Harrisburg, for appellant.

Peter B. Skeel, Pittsburgh, for appellee.

Roberts, C.j., and Nix, Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson and Zappala, JJ.

Author: Roberts

[ 502 Pa. Page 346]

OPINION OF THE COURT

This is a direct appeal by the Commonwealth from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Allegheny County which granted a pre-trial motion to quash an information charging appellee Robert Hicks with homicide by vehicle, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732. The court of common pleas held that the homicide by vehicle statute is unconstitutional on the ground that it violates the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States and the prohibition against special legislation contained in article III, section 32 of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. We reverse the order of the court of common pleas and remand for trial.*fn1

The information filed against appellee alleges that on April 3, 1982, appellee, while intoxicated, entered Interstate Route 79 by driving his automobile the wrong way down an exit ramp, and that while travelling north in the southbound lanes of Interstate 79, appellee's vehicle struck an oncoming vehicle, killing one of its occupants. Appellee was charged with homicide by vehicle as well as driving under the influence of alcohol, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3731, driving in the wrong direction on a divided highway, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3311(a), reckless driving, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3714, and driving while his operating privilege was suspended, 75 Pa.C.S. § 1543(a).*fn2

At the time of the alleged offense, 75 Pa.C.S. § 3732 provided:

"Any person who unintentionally causes the death of another person while engaged in the violation of any law of this Commonwealth or municipal ordinance applying to

[ 502 Pa. Page 347]

    the operation or use of a vehicle or to the regulation of traffic is guilty of homicide by vehicle, a misdemeanor of the first degree, when the violation is the cause of death."*fn3

In Commonwealth v. Field, 490 Pa. 319, 417 A.2d 160 (1980), this Court held that under section 3732 the Commonwealth must show that the defendant "knew or should have known" that he engaged in the conduct claimed to be in violation of the Vehicle Code, and that, at the very least, death was a "probable consequence" of that conduct. Commonwealth v. Field, 490 Pa. at 525, 417 A.2d at 163. Accord, Commonwealth v. Houtz, 496 Pa. 345, 437 A.2d 385 (1981).

In declaring section 3732 unconstitutional, the court of common pleas proceeded on the assumption that the goal of the Legislature in enacting section 3732 was to reduce the number of fatalities on our highways. The Court concluded that section 3732 was irrational by accepting as true the view that "punishment of a negligent offender in no way implements [deterrence] since the negligent harmdoer is, by definition, unaware of the risk he imposes on society," Slip op. at 10, quoting Comment, Is Criminal Negligence a Defensible Basis for Penal Liability?, 16 Buffalo L.Rev. 749, 751 (1967) (footnotes omitted).*fn4

[ 502 Pa. Page 348]

Under the equal protection clause, the test of the validity of a statutory classification which does not implicate "fundamental interests" or affect with particularity a "suspect class" is whether the classification bears a rational relationship to a legitimate state interest. See, e.g., Ohio Page 348} Bureau of Employment Services v. Hodory, 431 U.S. 471, 97 S.Ct. 1898, 97 S.Ct. 1898, 52 L.Ed.2d 513 (1977). This Court has held that the prohibition against special legislation contained in article III, section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution also requires that legislative classifications "have some rational relation to a proper state purpose." Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Co. v. Dep't. of Labor & Industry, 461 Pa. 68, 83, 334 A.2d 636, 643 (1975).

Although the court of common pleas properly framed the goal of the homicide by vehicle statute as the reduction of highway fatalities, the court improperly concluded that the classifications drawn by the statute are not rationally related to that goal. By focusing on drivers who know or should know that they are engaging in conduct constituting a Vehicle Code violation, of which death is a probable consequence, section 3732 seeks only to sanction those persons who should reasonably anticipate that their conduct is likely to produce death, in much the same manner as the law of torts imposes liability against only those wrongdoers who should reasonably have anticipated the harm resulting from their conduct. It has long been perceived that the imposition of liability for negligent conduct tends to improve the quality of social conduct. See W. Prosser, Law of Torts 14-16 (4th ed. 1971). As the judgment by the Legislature to borrow from concepts of tort law in imposing liability under section 3732 bears a rational relationship to the Legislature's goal, it must be concluded that the Legislature's enactment of section 3732 was a constitutional exercise of its lawmaking authority. Accordingly, the order of the court of common pleas holding unconstitutional the homicide by vehicle statute must be reversed and the record remanded for trial.*fn5

Order reversed and record remanded for trial.


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