Tulsa Attorney BlogThe Ever-Expanding Scope of Misdemeanor Manslaughter Involves Oklahoma

Oklahoma Has a High Incarceration Rate

Video Transcribed: The ever-expanding scope of misdemeanor manslaughter in Oklahoma. I’m an attorney in Oklahoma, James Wirth and that’s the topic for this video, misdemeanor manslaughter and how the scope of what is criminalized under that seems to keep expanding in the state of Oklahoma, even if the law stays the same.

And this could play into as just one of the many reasons that Oklahoma perhaps has such a high incarceration rate, overflowing prisons, is that we have these statutes in place that keep being expanded through construction by the Oklahoma Court Of Criminal Appeals, making them broader than they were originally intended. And by perhaps more broad than the letter of the law.

And we got another recent example of this today from the Oklahoma Court Of Criminal Appeals, a brand new published case, or I shouldn’t say the published case, it was an opinion that issued in this one they decided not to make it published precedent, but the case is F-2020-507, and it’s a Newsbauer versus the State of Oklahoma, hope I’m pronouncing that right, and it’s from the Comanche County Court CF-2018-271 and it deals with an issue of misdemeanor manslaughter. So, what is misdemeanor manslaughter?

Well, it’s similar to the felony murder rule. If during the commission of a felony, the actions of that commission caused the death of somebody, then rather than requiring some sort of intent to kill, it’s automatically first-degree murder based on the felony murder statute. And there’s something similar for misdemeanors. So, if during the commission of a misdemeanor, the death of somebody is caused then it’s misdemeanor manslaughter and misdemeanor manslaughter is a felony. Has a possibility of significant jail time if somebody dies during the commission of a misdemeanor.

Originally, the scope of that was fairly narrow, just like for felony murder cases, the felony had to be inherently dangerous. You have to look at it like it’d be likely to cause death in order to use the felony murder rule, in that something logical along that was used for misdemeanors as well, where not every misdemeanor would work.

I’ve pulled up some history regarding this statute, this case actually goes back to 1929, Logan v. State, just to get some quotes on what it used to be like for misdemeanor manslaughter. It says, “Certainly the commission of a misdemeanor in no way connected with the death is not what is meant by the law.

For instance, it is unlawful to drive an automobile upon a public highway under certain conditions without displaying there on a licensed tag for the current year. But surely no court would hold that because one was operating a car, and should be so unfortunate as to unintentionally and without fault strike and kill somebody, that because he was engaged in the commission of a misdemeanor, the driving without a license, an offense in no matter connected with death, he would be guilty of manslaughter.”

So, the court essentially 1929 interpreting this statute says, “But surely no court would hold that somebody is guilty under those circumstances.” Well, some court would hold that. The exact same court that wrote this in 1929 is holding something to that effect in 2021. So at that point, during this time, it was limited to certain misdemeanors. It had to be a good causal connection between the misdemeanor crime and the offense.

He gives another example here says, “Or if a person were driving an automobile at an unlawful rate of speed and some person should intentionally project themselves in front of the car, the driver although engaged in a misdemeanor and driving at such an excessive rate of speed would be guilty of no offense for the reason that the misdemeanor which he was committing was not relevant to the death.”

So here, even if somebody is speeding and somebody comes in front of them, runs in front of them, in this case intentionally, and they hit him, this case says, “Well, now that’s not going to be misdemeanor manslaughter because there’s not enough of a correlation.” There’s not enough of a nexus between misdemeanor crime and death, even though speeding may be more likely to cause death and the speeding maybe make it more difficult for them to avoid the collision. But that’s what the interpretation was in 1929.

Now fast forward to 2010 and the court, Oklahoma Court Of Criminal Appeals, took up that issue as it relates to driving without a driver’s license. And that was prosecuted and the person was convicted. They appealed to the Oklahoma Court Of Criminal Appeals and they said, “There’s no nexus. I was just driving without a license and that has nothing to do with the accident that caused the crash.” And the court went ahead and expanded it and said, “No, the statute doesn’t limit it to any specific misdemeanors, so we’re going to say it works for any misdemeanors.”

And this was during the commission of a crime, driving without a license, and somebody died on the basis of that, so we’re going to expand it and allow that kind of conviction, allow somebody to have a manslaughter felony conviction for an accident that caused somebody’s death when they were driving without a license.

And now we’ve got a new decision from the court that takes it one step further and is almost exactly in line with what the court was saying, “No court would do.” In 1929 is now saying, “Yes, we’ll affirm that conviction.” And that is the case that I described at the beginning of this video.

And that defendant had apparently lost his CDL, and he was supposed to have an interlock device in his car. What that means, although it doesn’t say it in the case, is that he probably had a DUI conviction. And based on that DUI conviction, or that failure to blow, he had a requirement as part of his license that he had an interlock device that he blows into to make sure that he’s not intoxicated in order to drive.

So, he lost his license, his CDL license. He was supposed to have an interlock device in his car. He didn’t have either one of those things, but he was driving. Now, presumably again, it doesn’t say it is the opinion, but presumably, he’s driving a commercial vehicle and he’s doing so to earn a living, to support his family. But nonetheless, he’s driving on the road and that is illegal. That would be a misdemeanor offense.

However, in this case, somebody runs a stoplight or a stop sign and goes right in front of him and he hits that vehicle with his vehicle. But there’s no indication in this opinion that it was his fault all. By all appearances of the opinion, it was entirely the other party’s fault, the other driver’s fault, and the other driver died as a result of this. And the court had to make the determination on whether there was a sufficient nexus between the crime of driving without an interlock device, driving without a CDL license, and death.

And the Oklahoma Court Of Criminal Appeals applying the statute, and the prior precedent from 2010 that I mentioned, decided that “Yeah, that’s enough of a nexus. If he hadn’t been driving, it wouldn’t have occurred. If he hadn’t been committing the crime it wouldn’t have occurred.” I would contend that that’s not the appropriate test here, not the appropriate application of the test.

And yes, if he hadn’t been driving it wouldn’t have occurred, but on the other hand, if he had been licensed, if he did have an interlock device in his car would this accident have still occurred? Yes, it still would have occurred. And if we use a more civil approach, in which there’s a criminal liability and there is civil liability, and almost always across the board, certainly historically, the rule has been it takes more to lock somebody up than it does to get a monetary judgment.

And that’s why in criminal court, you’ve got beyond a reasonable doubt and in civil court, it’s by a preponderance of the evidence. Everything should be stacked to the protection of people when the state is coming after them and when the state is trying to throw them in jail.

But we seem to be going away from that lately because in a car accident case if we want to go for civil liability, they wouldn’t be able to get it here. This guy wasn’t civilly liable. I mean, even though he could be described as negligent per se because he was driving unlawfully because he didn’t have a license.

There was still intervening negligence from the other side that was both intervening and therefore takes precedent and was much more significant in its proximity to the harm that was caused. So, you would never be able to get a civil judgment under these circumstances yet somehow the Oklahoma Court Of Criminal Appeals wants to expand these rules so much that you can get a criminal justice based on it.

And this person ended up getting sentenced to seven years of incarceration for a death that was caused primarily by the other party running a red light or stops sign and pulling right out in front of him. And perhaps secondarily to a lesser degree is caused by the fact that he was driving without a license.

And the statute in question that they’re interpreting, this is what it says, “Homicide is manslaughter in the first degree in the following cases.” And it’s relevant to the first one here, “When perpetrated without a design to effect death by a person while engaged in the commission of a misdemeanor.” And certainly, the person was engaged in the commission of misdemeanor because the driving without a license, but this when perpetrated without design. So, I would see that as being a rule that the defendant actually had perpetrated, done something, to directly cause the death and that’s just not applicable here.

There are jury instructions, this is what goes to the jury to determine whether it is in there, and there are additional rules that have been added in, and it says, “A death of a human occurring as a direct result of an act or event which happened in the commission of a misdemeanor.”

So, they use the term direct result. And I think in this case, it is not a direct result. It’s as a direct result of the negligence of the other party of the death, not the fact that the person was driving without a license because if that person were licensed the same thing would have happened.

If that person did have an interlock device, the same thing would’ve happened. The state would have a better argument if the person was intoxicated or was driving recklessly, but normal driving without a license and the other party’s at fault.

It’s this expansion of these rules that allows more people to be locked up and our prisons to be full. If you’ve got questions about this case or your circumstances, you’re going to want to talk to an attorney about that specifically, rather than this general information. If you want to get something like that scheduled or you have questions about misdemeanors in Oklahoma, you can go online to makelaweasy.com.

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