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Aggravated Assault Charges Allowed to Proceed by Pennsylvania Court in DUI Case

A Pennsylvania judge ruled in February that prosecutors had produced sufficient evidence to support two counts of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence, which arose from a single-car accident in October 2010. The defendant had moved to dismiss the aggravated assault charges, claiming that the injuries did not rise to the level of “serious bodily injury” as required by Pennsylvania law. The aggravated assault by vehicle statute presents another interesting issue for prosecutors, as it states that a defendant must have acted “negligently.” The question of whether negligence, or criminal negligence, is an essential element of this offense remains unsettled by Pennsylvania courts.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune, the defendant, who was a college sophomore at the time, was driving with two passengers in his car on October 15, 2010. He was traveling at about sixty-five miles per hour, according to police, when the car struck a tree. Court records state that one passenger suffered multiple injuries, including a broken leg; while the other passenger suffered a fractured spine and head injuries. Police claim that the defendant had blood alcohol content of 0.178 percent.

Prosecutors charged the defendant with driving under the influence – general impairment, as well as first-offense driving under the influence as a minor. They also filed two charges of aggravated assault by vehicle while driving under the influence, as well as reckless driving, unsafe speed, purchase of an alcoholic beverage by a minor, and operating a motor vehicle as a minor with alcohol in their system. The defendant moved to dismiss the aggravated assault charges, claiming that the injuries did not present “substantial risk of death,” “permanent disfigurement,” or extended loss of use of a limb or organ, as required by statute. The court disagreed.

The aggravated assault charges present another issue. A DUI conviction is included in the definition of the offense, but the statute further defines the offense in part as “negligently causing serious bodily injury.” No court has directly addressed whether criminal negligence is an essential element of the offense, which prosecutors must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has acknowledged that the question exists.

In Commonwealth v. Samuels, a defendant challenged a conviction of vehicular homicide while driving under the influence, arguing that the trial court failed to instruct the jury about criminal negligence. The vehicular homicide statute, however, uses the word “unintentionally” instead of “negligently.” A majority of the court affirmed the verdict, but did not actually reach question of whether vehicular homicide requires proof of criminal negligence. A concurring opinion by Justice Thomas Saylor portrayed vehicular homicide as a matter of strict liability that only requires proof of a DUI conviction and a death resulting from that offense. In a partially-concurring opinion, Justice Sandra Schultz Newman argued that the aggravated assault statute’s language makes it clear that criminal negligence is an essential element of vehicular aggravated assault, but not homicide.

If you have been arrested for DUI in Pennsylvania , it is critical that you consult with a qualified DUI lawyer to determine the best way to handle your defense. Zachary B. Cooper, Attorney at Law, P.C. has dedicated 100% of his practice to DUI defense. We are available to help you 24/7. Please contact us online or at (215) 542-0800 for a free and confidential consultation.

More Blog Posts:

Man Arrested, Charged with DUI Despite 0.00 Percent BAC, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, March 14, 2014

Court Vacates DUI Sentence Based on Pennsylvania’s Merger Doctrine, Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, February 6, 2014

Anatomy of a Pennsylvania DUI Offense: How is “Impairment” Defined? Pennsylvania DUI Lawyers Blog, January 21, 2014