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State v. Imokawa

Supreme Court of Washington

October 10, 2019

STATE OF WASHINGTON, Petitioner,
v.
DEAN MASAO IMOKAWA, Respondent.

         En Banc

          JOHNSON, J.

         This case stems from a fatal car accident where Dean Imokawa's truck collided with another vehicle during a lane change, propelling him into oncoming traffic and causing a collision with another vehicle. The State charged Imokawa with vehicular homicide and vehicular assault from the injuries resulting from the collision. The trial court judge denied Imokawa's request to include a specific jury instruction that the State must prove the absence of a superseding intervening cause beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury found Imokawa guilty of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. The Court of Appeals reversed, reasoning that the State has the burden to prove absence of a superseding intervening cause, the jury was not sufficiently instructed on this burden, and the error was not harmless. State v. Imokawa, 4 Wn.App. 2d 545, 422 P.3d 502 (2018), review granted in part, 192 Wn.2d 1016, 432 P.3d 111 (2019). The State petitioned for review, arguing that the jury was properly instructed on the burden of proof and that any error was harmless. We reverse the Court of Appeals. When looking at the instructions as a whole, the jury was adequately instructed as to the State's burden of proof on the issue of superseding intervening cause.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         On the morning of April 2, 2015, Imokawa was driving his truck on State Route (SR) 503, traveling north from Vancouver, Washington, toward Battle Ground, Washington. While traveling in the left, northbound lane, Imokawa came up behind a Land Rover driven by Nicholas Grier. Imokawa attempted to pass Grier on the right, but he clipped the front of the Land Rover while changing back from the right lane to the left lane. This collision caused Imokawa's truck to swerve west, over the median, and sideways into oncoming, southbound traffic. A southbound sport utility vehicle (SUV) hit Imokawa's truck; the driver of the SUV sustained severe injuries, and her passenger died in the hospital the next day. Out of these events, the State charged Imokawa with vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, and reckless driving.

         At trial there was conflicting testimony as to the facts immediately leading up to the collision and how the initial collision between Imokawa and Grier occurred. Grier testified that while he was driving northbound in the left lane, he noticed the truck when Imokawa "flashed his headlights at [him] and came up very close on [his] rear bumper." 2 Verbatim Report of Proceedings (VRP) at 357. He testified that he was "uncomfortable" because Imokawa's truck was within a couple feet of his Land Rover, so he "tapped [his] brakes and put [his] hand up" to wave him off as they slowed down for a stoplight. 2 VRP at 358. After the stoplight, Imokawa again came up close to Grier's bumper, backed off, and moved into the right lane. Grier testified that as they began going down a hill on SR 503, Imokawa accelerated past Grier, turned on his left-hand signal, and within seconds, came over into the left-hand lane, striking the front of Grier's Land Rover. Grier testified that he did not try to prevent Imokawa from making the lane change, he did not see how it would be possible for Imokawa to make the lane change given the space, and he did not speed up or react at all because of how quickly it happened.

         Imokawa testified to a very different story. He stated that he first noticed Grier's Land Rover when he saw a different truck pass Grier on the right. He then came up behind the Land Rover and turned on his headlights to get Grier's attention and to let him know he wanted to pass, but Grier did not move over into the right lane. He testified that as they came up to an intersection, he "backed off," but Grier remained in the left lane. 4 VRP at 659. Imokawa then came up right behind the Land Rover again, and Grier "slammed on his brakes" and "brake checked" Imokawa. 4 VRP at 659. Imokawa then backed off again and moved into the right lane to pass Grier on the right. He testified that once he moved over, he put on his left-hand signal, accelerated to pass Grier, and checked his mirrors to make sure there was enough room to pass Grier. He claimed that when he began to make the lane change, Grier sped up to cut him off and hit him, propelling him into oncoming traffic.

         After testimony was completed, the parties discussed the jury instructions, specifically focusing on the instructions for proximate cause and superseding intervening cause. The main disagreement was whether the State bears the burden to prove the absence of a superseding intervening cause beyond a reasonable doubt or whether the defendant bears the burden of proving there was a superseding intervening cause, and how the jury must be instructed on that issue.

         Imokawa proposed that Washington Pattern Jury Instructions: Criminal 90.08, which defines the interplay of proximate cause and superseding intervening cause, be modified to include language that read,

The State has the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt both (1) that conduct by the defendant was a proximate cause and, (2) that the conduct of Nicholas Grier did not constitute a superseding cause of the collision which resulted in the injuries and the death that occurred in this case.

Compare Clerk's Papers (CP) at 29, with 11A WASHINGTON Practice: Washington Pattern Jury Instructions: Criminal 90.08, at 278 (4th ed. 2016) (WPIC). Imokawa also proposed adding "[t]hat. . . Nicholas Grier was not a superseding cause of the injuries sustained by [the victim]" to 11A WPIC 90.02 (elements of vehicular homicide) and 11A WPIC 91.02 (elements of vehicular assault). CP at 30; see CP at 33. The trial court declined to give these instructions and, instead, gave 11A WPIC 90.02, 11A WPIC 91.02, and 11A WPIC 90.08, as well as 11A WPIC 90.07, defining proximate cause.

         The trial court also gave the standard instructions that included 11 WPIC 4.01, which defines reasonable doubt and informs the jury that the defendant is presumed innocent, that the burden is on the State to prove every element of the crimes beyond a reasonable doubt, and that the defendant has no burden to prove reasonable doubt. See 11 WPIC 4.01, at 93 (4th ed. 2016).

         The jury found Imokawa guilty of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, both based on the prong of "operating [a] motor vehicle with disregard for the safety of others." CP at 75, 77. The jury acquitted Imokawa of reckless driving. Imokawa appealed, alleging that the State has the burden to prove absence of a superseding intervening cause, that the proof of this absence is an essential element of the crimes of vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, that the trial court erred because the jury was not adequately instructed on the burden and elements, and that the error was not harmless.[1] The Court of Appeals agreed that the State had the burden of proof, that the jury was not adequately instructed on that burden, and that the error was not harmless, but it disagreed that absence of a superseding intervening cause is an essential element of the crimes. Imokawa, 4 Wn.App. 2d 545. The State petitioned this court's review on the issue of whether the jury was adequately instructed that the State had the burden to prove the absence of a superseding intervening cause and, if they were not, whether the error was harmless.

         ANALYSIS

         The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution requires that jury instructions adequately convey to the jury that the State bears the burden of proving "every element of the crime charged beyond a reasonable doubt." State v. Brown, 147 Wn.2d 330, 339, 58 P.3d 889 (2002); see also State v. Acosta, 101 Wn.2d 612, 615, 683 P.2d 1069 (1984). When a defendant challenges the adequacy of specific jury instructions informing the jury of the State's burden of proof, we review the challenged instructions de novo in the context of the instructions as a whole. State v. Bennett, 161 Wn.2d 303, 307, 165 P.3d 1241 (2007). "Instructions satisfy the requirement of a fair trial when, taken as a whole, they properly inform the jury of the applicable law, are not misleading, and permit the defendant to argue his [or her] theory of the case." State v. Tili, 139 Wn.2d 107, 126, 985 P.2d 365 (1999). When instructing the jury that the State has the burden to disprove a defense, "a specific instruction is preferable, but failure to provide one is not reversible per se so long as the instructions, taken as a whole, make it clear that the State has the burden." Acosta, 101 Wn.2d at 621.

         Generally, it is sufficient to explicitly instruct the jury that the State must prove beyond a reasonable doubt the statutory elements of the crime. RCW 46.61.520 defines the elements of vehicular homicide:

(1) When the death of any person ensues within three years as a proximate result of injury proximately caused by the driving of any vehicle by any person, the driver is guilty of vehicular homicide if the driver was operating a motor vehicle:
(c) With disregard for the safety of others.

         While RCW 46.61.522 defines the elements of vehicular assault:

(1) A person is guilty of vehicular assault if he or she operates or drives any vehicle:
(c) With disregard for the safety of others and causes substantial bodily harm to another.

         In the present case, the jury was instructed on these elements through 11A WPIC 90.02 and 11A WPIC 91.02, on the definition of proximate cause through 11A WPIC 90.07, and on the interplay of proximate cause and superseding intervening cause through 11A WPIC 90.08.

         Instruction 9, defining proximate cause for vehicular homicide, based on 11A WPIC 90.07, reads,

To constitute vehicular homicide, there must be a causal connection between the death of a human being and the driving of a defendant so that the act done or omitted was a proximate cause of the resulting death.
The term "proximate cause" means a cause which, in a direct sequence, unbroken by any new independent cause, produces the death, and without which the death ...

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