Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Court of Appeal Throws Out Conviction in Traffic Fatality of Child
Panel Calls Driver’s Detention ‘Tantamount to Arrest,’ Scores Lack of Miranda Warnings
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A driver detained after a traffic collision that resulted in a child’s death should have been given Miranda warnings, the First District Court of Appeal has ruled.
Div. Three Monday reversed the conviction of Richard Tom, who police said never asked about the condition of the occupants of the vehicle with which his Mercedes E320 crashed in February 2007. That testimony should not have been admitted, the panel said, because “post-arrest, pre-Miranda silence” cannot be used as substantive evidence of guilt.
Tom was sentenced to seven years in prison following his 2008 San Mateo Superior Court conviction for vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence. Prosecutors said Tom was drunk and speeding when he broadsided a vehicle making a left turn in Redwood City.
The driver of the other vehicle, Lorraine Wong, suffered a broken rib and finger, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sydney Ng, was killed. Another daughter, 10-year-old Kendall Ng, spent a week in the hospital with injuries to her forehead, arm, and neck.
Following the collision, Tom was held at the scene for more than an hour, and asked if he could walk to his home, which was less than a block away. An officer told him he could not leave, the investigation was ongoing, and he was later placed in a patrol car for about 20 minutes before being taken to the police station.
A prosecution expert on accident reconstruction testified that Tom was driving at least 67 miles per hour—in a 35 mph zone—at the time of the crash. The defense expert countered that he was going no faster than 52 miles per hour.
Jurors found him guilty of gross vehicular manslaughter, as a lesser offense of vehicular manslaughter while intoxicated. They found him not guilty of driving while impaired and driving with an excessive blood alcohol level.
Justice Martin Jenkins, writing for the Court of Appeal, said that while Tom was not under formal arrest, the circumstances of his detention were such that the failure to give Miranda warnings rendered any testimony regarding his statements, or the lack thereof, inadmissible.
During the period that he was kept at the scene, the justice wrote, “the atmosphere surrounding defendant’s detention became increasingly coercive,” so that “any reasonable person would interpret those restraints ‘as tantamount to a formal arrest.’”
Split of Authority
The justice acknowledged that federal appeals courts have split as to whether evidence of a defendant’s post-arrest, pre-Miranda silence is admissible. The Ninth and D.C. Circuits, he explained, have held such evidence cannot be admitted, while the Eighth Circuit allows the evidence in unless it relates to silence in the face of an actual police interrogation.
The better rule, Jenkins said, is that such evidence should be excluded in order to protect the “core Fifth Amendment values” of the right to silence and the right not have one’s silence used to infer guilt.
The U.S. Supreme Court, Jenkins acknowledged, has allowed the use of evidence of a defendant’s silence for impeachment of the defendant’s testimony, and has also permitted proof of pre-arrest silence as substantive evidence of guilt. But the high court has never extended those holdings to evidence of post-arrest silence, Jenkins said, nor are there sound policy reasons for such an extension.
The justice reasoned that allowing such evidence “tends to obfuscate the truth-telling function of the criminal trial,” because it has minimal probative value, can be highly prejudicial, and may force the defendant to give up his right to self-incrimination “in order to refute the negative inferences inevitably drawn by the prosecution from post-arrest silence.”
Jenkins went on to say that the evidence was not harmless beyond a reasonable doubt.
“Under these circumstances—an emotionally charged case, involving the death of one child and serious injury to another, and hinging on competing theories of accident reconstruction yielding widely different estimates of defendant’s speed at the point of impact—the prosecutor’s argument urging the jury to consider defendant’s failure to ask about the welfare of the occupants of the other vehicle as substantive evidence of his guilt was highly prejudicial,” the jurist wrote.
The case is People v. Tom, 12 S.O.S. 1300.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company