The Chairman of this Committee has raised an important question: Is the “substantial deviation” standard in House Bill 363 an appropriate standard for criminal liability? As with all standards of care, juries must apply this standard to facts that vary from case to case. Judges must review their results to ensure a consistent application. In the states that have already adopted the substantial deviation standard, minor mistakes and momentary lapses in attentiveness have not resulted in criminal convictions.
The table below summarizes appellate cases applying this standard from eight of those states. (We reviewed hundreds of cases; but the table omits cases involving intoxication, because all states uphold such convictions). The table shows that courts have upheld convictions for extremely egregious conduct that would not be manslaughter in Maryland today, such as running a stop sign at full speed or repeatedly crossing a double yellow line. But juries have rarely convicted for mere inattention or a fleeting lapse in the exercise of due care, and the few times they did, the convictions were reversed. We found no case of a conviction even at the trial court level for accidents resulting from garden variety negligence.
We took the Chairman’s comments to the media at face value: that he understands that drivers who kill never go to jail, but that he is unclear whether the proposed law would go too far in the other direction, and he needs to be convinced–but he has an open mind.
(Jim Titus is a member of the WABA Board of Directors from Prince Georges County)