Friday, June 20, 2008

Involuntary Intoxication is a defense

California DUI lawyer news

Santa Clara County Superior Court judge on Wednesday dismissed an indictment against a man whose insulin overdose caused a car collision that killed two people in 2006. The judge ruled that the prosecution didn't give the grand jury necessary instructions on the driver's possible exculpatory defenses, including the fact that he couldn't be held criminally liable if he was involuntarily intoxicated, according to lawyers on both sides of the case.

The case marked a rare attempt to prosecute a diabetic for an act committed while suffering from an insulin overdose, several observers said. Deputy District Attorney Peter Waite, who prosecuted the case, said he didn't give the grand jury those instructions because the driver voluntarily injected himself with insulin and wasn't tricked or forced to become intoxicated. "Therefore that instruction would've been wrong, would've been a mistake to give to the jury," he said.

Waite said he would confer with his bosses about whether to convene a new grand jury. He said he also has the option to file a new complaint against defendant John Mayfield. He said it's not rare for a judge to dismiss an initial indictment and allow the government to return with a modified version.

Allen Ruby, a partner at San Jose's Ruby & Schofield who represented Mayfield, said the decision by retired Judge Charles Hayden, who was sitting by assignment, agreed with the jury-instruction issues Ruby had raised in his motion to dismiss. The two families of the couple killed in the crash — 20-year-olds Mary Bernstein and Robert Conway — have filed wrongful death suits against Mayfield and his employer, Pacific Gas & Electric. An attorney representing the Bernstein family said Wednesday's ruling "shocked" him, but it opened the way for him to pursue new depositions and discovery. The Conway family made a confidential settlement with the power company in 2007.

"He's been a diabetic for 26 years," San Jose attorney John Stein said, questioning the involuntary intoxication defense. "It would've taken him all of about four seconds to test his blood, and he didn't do it." Stein said that he was kept from deposing Mayfield and his PG&E bosses because of Mayfield's Fifth Amendment rights associated with his criminal case, but that now the Bernsteins' suit could proceed. "Mrs. Bernstein wants to get to the bottom of the case and what PG&E knew and didn't know, and the only way you can do it is civil litigation, so that's what we'll be doing for the next six months," Stein said.

Kriss Halpern, a Santa Monica solo who has represented more than 100 diabetic clients in DMV hearings to earn back their suspended driver licenses, said he had talked with prosecutors on several occasions after his clients had insulin overdose-related car accidents and that they had never filed charges. But none of those accidents involved fatalities or serious injuries, he said. In theory, Halpern said, someone who has constantly low blood sugar and puts others at risks by doing nothing about it could be found criminally negligent. But he's never seen that happen because "nobody would do it, you would have to be willfully, so insanely stupid to do something like that," he said.

Mayfield, a PG&E construction supervisor from Paso Robles, was behind the wheel of his work truck on Interstate 280 in San Jose when he sped off the 11th Street ramp and slammed into cars stopped at a red light.

After noticing his high blood sugar earlier in the day, Mayfield had tried to give himself an insulin injection but broke his syringe, according to his motion to dismiss. Thinking he hadn't received the medicine and lacking another injection pen, Mayfield refilled his prescription at a nearby drug store, dosed himself again, and lost consciousness sometime after he drove away.