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DUI Manslaughter Conviction Overturned

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In the case of Harley Pennington versus the State of Florida, a jury convicted Mr. Pennington of DUI manslaughter based on the following facts:

Pennington was driving his SUV while intoxicated. The person who was killed in the accident had purchased his new, high-performance, sport motorcycle, (which had more horsepower than most small sedans), just eleven days earlier. He had alcohol in his bloodstream at the time of the accident and was not licensed to drive the motorcycle. According to witnesses who testified to what they saw shortly before the collision, Pennington was weaving within his lane, but did not actually leave his lane at any time. The driver of the motorcycle was seen shortly before the accident driving his motorcycle approximately 80 to 90 miles per hour in a 45-mile-per-hour speed zone.  He almost hit another vehicle as he sped by and cut in front of it at a very high rate of speed, and he was not wearing a helmet.

The unusual fact in this case is that the motorcyclist had actually ridden up and over the top of the SUV. There was no damage to the front forks of the motorcycle, which all of the experts agreed would have been damaged in a frontal collision, but there was extensive damage to the undercarriage of the motorcycle.  The prosecution’s expert testified that one possible explanation was that the motorcycle was doing a wheelie when the accident occurred. Pennington’s expert testified that based upon the evidence, the motorcycle had to have been doing a wheelie when it was struck.

Pennington appealed the jury’s verdict and argued to the court of appeals that even if he had not been under the influence of alcohol, the fact that the motorcycle was in wheelie position meant that its headlight was pointing towards the sky and, therefore, he could not have seen the motorcycle coming in the dark before he began his left turn in front of it. Thus, the fact that he was driving under the influence of alcohol did not cause or contribute to the death of the motorcyclist, and Pennington could not be guilty of DUI manslaughter because the law requires that in order to convict someone of DUI manslaughter, the prosecutor has to prove that the individual operated a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol to the extent that his normal faculties were impaired or with an unlawful blood alcohol level, and that as a result of such operation, the person caused or contributed to causing the death of another person.

The court of appeals agreed with Pennington.  It concluded that although there was enough evidence to convict him of simple DUI, there was not enough evidence to convict him of DUI manslaughter.  The court of appeals therefore reversed Pennington’s conviction for DUI manslaughter.