Appeal from the Order Entered November 1, 1983, By the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County, Pennsylvania at 640 Criminal 1983
Theodore B. Smith, II, Dist. Atty., Eric M. Noonan, Carlisle, for appellant.
Paul Richard Wagner, Andrew S. Gordon, Deputy Atty. Gen., Harrisburg, for appellee.
Nix, C.j., and Larsen, Flaherty, McDermott, Hutchinson, Zappala and Papadakos, JJ.
This is an appeal from an order of the Court of Common Pleas of Cumberland County which quashed an information charging the appellee, Lester E. Jumper, with the offense of homicide by vehicle, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3732. The basis for quashing the information was Common Pleas Court's judgment that appellee's alleged failure to have stopped for a red light, and the fatal accident that resulted therefrom, may not form the basis for a homicide by vehicle charge. An appeal was taken to the Superior Court, but, as a result of language in Common Pleas Court's opinion indicating that the homicide by vehicle statute would have been viewed as unconstitutional, on equal protection grounds, if the statute had been regarded as applicable in cases where fatalities are caused by motorists who fail to obey red lights, Superior Court viewed the lower court's ruling as a decision that the homicide by vehicle statute was unconstitutional, and, thus, transferred the case to this Court.
The homicide by vehicle statute, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3732, provides as follows:
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 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.
In holding that this provision is not applicable to cases where fatalities have been caused by motorists who failed to obey red lights, the trial court narrowed the coverage of the statute in a manner that is patently without basis. Examination of the trial court's opinion reveals that its decision was motivated by its belief that the penalties provided by the homicide by vehicle law are too harsh, and, thus, that it did not believe the legislature intended to impose those penalties upon motorists who cause fatalities by committing traffic light violations.
Specifically, the trial court held that traffic light violations cannot fulfill the requirement established by earlier
decisions of this Court that, to support a conviction under the homicide by vehicle law, 75 Pa.C.S.A. § 3732, the Commonwealth must show that the defendant knew or should have known that he was engaging in conduct constituting a Vehicle Code violation of which death was a "probable consequence." Commonwealth v. Field, 490 Pa. 519, 525, 417 A.2d 160, 163 (1980). In Field, responding to a constitutional challenge, this Court construed the homicide by vehicle statute as requiring culpability as an element necessary for conviction. As stated in Commonwealth v. Hicks, 502 Pa. 344, 348, 466 A.2d 613, 615 (1983), appeal dismissed, 465 U.S. 1015, 104 S.Ct. 1260, 79 L.Ed.2d 668 (1984), "[S]section 3732 seeks only to sanction those persons who should reasonably anticipate that their conduct is likely to produce death . . . ." Citing this language from Hicks, the trial court in the instant case reasoned that one who proceeds through a red light could not "reasonably anticipate" that death would be a probable consequence of the act.
We believe that such reasoning is erroneous, and that traffic light violations are no less likely to result in fatalities than are the multitude of other traffic offenses that involve a potential for violent collisions. Indeed, a primary purpose of having traffic lights at intersections is to prevent the collisions that would occur if vehicles were permitted unrestrained entry into intersections from conflicting directions at the same time. One would have to ignore common sense and experience to regard as cogent the trial court's holding that, as a matter of law, death is never a probable consequence of the wrongful failure to stop for ...