Monday, March 25, 2002
UCLA Law Professor Bussel’s Vehicular Manslaughter Conviction Upheld by Appellate Division
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
A UCLA law professor’s vehicular manslaughter conviction has been upheld by an appeals panel, which ruled that ordinary negligence was sufficient to support the guilty verdict.
In a ruling by the Los Angeles Superior Court’s Appellate Division filed in January, but made public Friday after this district’s Court of Appeal denied transfer, the court rejected the appeal of driver Daniel J. Bussel, who challenged his misdemeanor conviction for violation of Penal Code Sec. 192(c)(2).
Bussel, the husband of former Police Commission President Raquelle de la Rocha, was driving his 11-year-old stepdaughter to school in March 2000 when he turned right onto Fulton Avenue and hit Betty Brown, 73, and Juan Huerta, 29, as they crossed Hillview Park Avenue in an unmarked crosswalk.
Huerta suffered abrasions to his knees, while Brown sustained a head injury.
Although Brown’s head was bleeding at the scene, she did not appear to be seriously injured. She later died of injuries from the accident.
Bussel looked to his left for oncoming traffic, but did not stop at the stop sign and went through the intersection at three or four miles an hour at the time of the collision, according to evidence presented at the trial. Bussel testified that he did stop before the stop sign and limit line.
Bussel contended on appeal that ordinary negligence is not enough to support a conviction for vehicular manslaughter, and if it is enough, the law violates his constitutional right to due process.
In his opinion for the Appellate Division, Judge Charles Lee noted that the Legislature has carefully distinguished the different types of manslaughter, and in doing so unambiguously provides that a person may be convicted of certain acts committed without gross negligence.
The phrase “without gross negligence,” which appears in the statute, means that ordinary negligence is all that must be proven, Lee said.
And Bussel’s contention that the Legislature acted haphazardly in providing that an act of ordinary negligence could have criminal consequences is not supported by either case law or common sense, the court ruled.
“Most jurisdictions that have addressed this issue have held that a vehicular manslaughter conviction may be premised on ordinary negligence,” Lee said.
Bussel also maintained that the trial court improperly instructed the jury when it failed to add “under the circumstances of its commission was dangerous to human life” to the alternative jury instruction “the driver negligently commits and act ordinarily lawful which might cause death.”
The court ruled that in order for a jury to find Bussel guilty under the alternative, it would have to find that his actions were such that “might cause death,” which is essentially the same requirement as determining that his actions were “dangerous to human life.”
“A trial court is not required to give an instruction which would be duplicative of other instructions already given,” Lee declared.
The court also rejected Bussel’s claim that there was insufficient evidence to find him guilty of vehicular manslaughter.
“Failing to stop for pedestrians in a cross walk is manifestly dangerous to human life under the circumstances and likely to cause death,” Lee wrote.
Bussel was sentenced to three years summary probation which required him to perform 300 hours of community service and to pay a fine of $750, plus penalty assessments, or to make a $2,000 contribution to the Gamble House, where Brown worked for a number of years as a docent. Bussel’s lawyer, Edward J. Horowitz, said he believed Bussel chose to make the contribution.
Brown’s family has settled a wrongful-death suit against Bussel.
Bussel is currently on a two-year leave to practice bankruptcy law with a specialization in debtor rights at the law firm Klee, Tuchin, Bogdanoff & Stern. He is slated to return to UCLA next year.
Bussel, the firm, and UCLA have all said that the leave is unrelated to the court cases.
Horowitz said he was disappointed with the Appellate Division’s decision, but declined to comment further on the case because pending a petition for review in the state Supreme Court.
Horowitz handled the appeal along with Ezekiel P. Perlo. UCLA law professor David A. Sklansky and John T. Philipsborn filed an amicus brief for California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, urging reversal.
Deputy City Attorney Candice I. Horikawa represented the prosecution.
The case is People v. Bussel, BR 41234.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company