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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Woman Huffing While Driving Acted With Malice

A Pennsylvania driver huffed difluoroethane, or DFE, while driving and killed another driver in a subsequent collision. Based on her past of losing consciousness after huffing DFE, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court concluded this summer that her conduct constituted malice sufficient to support her convictions of third-degree murder and aggravated assault. The state high court therefore affirmed the superior court’s decision in this Pennsylvania DUI case.

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Huffing while driving is more common than one might expect; it is an issue that often finds its way into the courts. Just this month, for example, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the impaired driving convictions of a woman who was found limp in her car three separate times after allegedly huffing DFE. One Minnesota Supreme Court Justice dissented; she argued the law lists hazardous chemical characteristics, and DFE falls under that category even though it’s not mentioned by name.

DFE is a colorless gas commonly used as a refrigerant or as a propellant for aerosol sprays and in gas duster products. DFE is defined as an inhalant, which also includes chemicals found in products like aerosol sprays, glue, cleaning fluids, paint thinner, nail polish remover, and lighter fuel. When these substances are inhaled through the nose or mouth, they can cause permanent physical and mental damage. They deprive the body of oxygen and force the heart to beat rapidly and irregularly. People using inhalants can suffer nausea and nosebleeds, lose their sense of smell, or develop liver, kidney, and lung problems. Prolonged use can cause reduced muscle mass, tone, and strength. Inhalants can make people unable to move, walk, talk, and think normally. When the toxic fumes are sniffed straight into the sinuses, much of the damage is caused to the brain tissue. In addition to the above, inhalants can kill a person by heart attack or suffocation as the inhaled fumes take the place of oxygen in the lungs and central nervous system. A person who has huffed inhalants might also suddenly react with unexpected and extreme violence.

Also this year, a California motorist’s 2010 gross vehicular manslaughter conviction while intoxicated on DFE was overturned on appeal. In 2015, the Montana Supreme Court held that a person can be charged with driving under the influence for huffing aerosol propellants.

At the October 2014 jury trial in the recent Pennsylvania case, the evidence showed that the driver and her then-fiance drove to a Walmart store in State College, Pennsylvania. They purchased two cans of Dust-Off and some other items and then returned to the car. (Dust-Off contains DFE.) Before exiting the parking lot, both the driver and her ex-fiance huffed.

A few minutes later, she began driving. At a stop light, the driver and her fiance huffed again. The driver started to drive but quickly became unresponsive; her ex-fiance referred to her as “zombified.” The car started to drift into oncoming traffic and then struck a car driven by the victim, who died shortly thereafter.

The jury convicted the driver of aggravated assault, aggravated assault while DUI, third-degree murder, homicide by vehicle, and homicide by vehicle while DUI. The driver appealed to the Superior Court, challenging the sufficiency of the evidence to support a finding of malice necessary to sustain her convictions of aggravated assault and third-degree murder. The court concluded the facts of the case supported a finding of malice.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court granted the driver’s petition for allowance of appeal to review to decide whether the prosecution proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the driver acted with sufficient malice.

The state high court first explained that it had been several decades since it had last examined whether the decision to drive under the influence of a controlled substance or alcohol could ever rise to the level of malice. Its previous holdings concluded that the mens rea applicable to the decision to drive under the influence is ordinary recklessness, rather than malice.

In affirming the Superior Court’s decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court explained that the facts of the present case differed from past precedent. Here, the driver huffed DFE immediately before and while driving. She knew or should have reasonably known from the label that Dust-Off is not meant to be ingested. She also knew, from countless past experiences, that DFE affected her intensely and debilitated her for 10-15 minutes after inhalation. Finally, she was aware that huffing had caused her to become unconscious in the past.

There is a serious difference, the court reasoned, between deciding to drive while intoxicated and deciding to drive while knowing there is a strong likelihood of losing consciousness. In the latter situation, the defendant virtually guarantees that an accident will occur by intentionally undertaking an unnecessary act in careless disregard of its likely harmful impact on others.

For these reasons, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the evidence supported the lower court’s finding that when the driver decided to drive a vehicle under the influence of DFE, she acted with the required malice to support her convictions of aggravated assault and third-degree murder.

Hiring the right attorney can make all of the difference in the world, even if your case seems straightforward or you have no criminal record.  If you find yourself arrested for a DUI, make sure you have a capable attorney on your side. Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney Zachary B. Cooper will be aggressive and can fight to make sure that your rights are protected so that your family and you can move on with your lives. Call (215) 542-0800 for a free consultation to discuss the legal options that may be available to you.

More Blog Posts:

Pennsylvania Superior Court Denies DUI Defendant Post-Conviction Relief, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, October 18, 2017

Pennsylvania Superior Court Denies DUI Defendant Post-Conviction Relief, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, September 15, 2017.

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Upholds DUI Defendant’s License Suspension, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyer Blog, September 1, 2017.