Monday, September 27, 2010
C.A. Upholds Restitution Order to Estate as ‘Victim’
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
This district’s Court of Appeal on Friday rejected a drunk driver’s argument that the estate of the man he killed when he drove the wrong way on the freeway was not a “victim” entitled to restitution.
Div. Eight upheld a $446,486 restitution award against Paul Dean Runyan in favor of the estate of Donald Benge, reasoning that the estate only existed because of Runyan’s crime.
Benge was killed in a head-on collision in the early morning hours of April 6, 2007 on the 134 Freeway when Runyan attempted to drive home from a nightclub while intoxicated.
Runyan had already traveled one mile in the wrong direction when he struck Benge’s vehicle, which was travelling behind a California Highway Patrol vehicle that pulled over to the right shoulder of the freeway to avoid Runyan.
Runyan escaped with only minor injuries, and was charged with murder, gross vehicular manslaughter, driving under the influence causing injury and driving under the influence with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or greater causing injury. A jury acquitted him of murder in 2008, but convicted him on the other charges, and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Marcelita Haynes ordered restitution to Benge’s estate under Penal Code Sec. 1202.4.
The statute implements a 1982 voter-approved initiative which established a state constitutional right for crime victims to receive restitution from convicted defendants who caused a victim economic loss. It defines a “victim” as immediate surviving family and “[a]ny corporation, business trust, estate, trust, partnership, association, joint venture, government, governmental subdivision, agency, or instrumentality, or any other legal or commercial entity when that entity is a direct victim of a crime.”
Runyan argued that Benge, and not the estate, was the only “direct victim,” but the Court of Appeal rejected that construction in an opinion by Presiding Justice Tricia A. Bigelow.
The presiding justice noted that the California Supreme Court interpreted the term in People v. Birkett (1999) 21 Cal.4th 226 to conclude that the owners of stolen vehicles were victims under Sec. 1202.4, while companies that insured the vehicles were not because they only suffered losses as a result of crimes against those owners. She also observed that the court in People v. Martinez (2005) 36 Cal.4th 384 determined that the Department of Toxic Substances Control was not a victim entitled to restitution for cleanup of hazardous waste left by a defendant’s manufacture of methamphetamine.
But Bigelow pointed out that the high court ruled in People v. O’Casey (2001) 88 Cal.App.4th 967 that an insurance company was a direct victim where it made payments to a defendant and to medical providers on his behalf as the result of fraud, and she explained:
“Here, unlike in Birkett or Martinez, Benge’s estate did not merely indemnify or remediate the effects of a crime. Indeed, Benge’s estate only existed because of the crimes of the defendant. By his own analysis, Runyan would be responsible for all of Benge’s economic losses under section 1202.4 had he severely injured rather than killed Benge….It would reflect rather oddly inconsistent legislative priorities if the statutes implementing our state Constitution’s Victims’ Bill of Rights…provided greater protection to those who survive criminal conduct than those who die from it.”
Justices Laurence D. Rubin and Elizabeth A. Grimes joined Bigelow in her opinion.
The case is People v. Runyan, B218863.
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