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In an important new criminal law decision, The Court of Appeals of Washington reversed a conviction in a vehicular homicide case in State v. Imokawa. The court held that the jury instructions did not make it reasonably clear that the state had to disprove alternate causation of the accident which led to the fatal injury. I was co-counsel on appeal with the trial lawyer who tried the case.

The jury instructions in a vehicular homicide case are very complicated. The state must prove that the defendant was a “Proximate Cause” of the injury that lead to death, and that the defendant driver was either driving recklessly or in “disregard for safety” of others, which is an aggravated form of negligence. The defendant may offer proof that the act of another person was a superseding or intervening cause of the accident, in which case he is not liable for the death.

Due process of law requires that the state has the burden of proving every element of the crime. In situations where the defense evidence “negates” an element of the crime, the state must disprove the defense.

In State v Imokawa, the  instructions on the law given by the trial judge did not make it reasonably clear that the state had to disprove that the acts of another person constituted a superseding or intervening cause of the accident. The court reversed the  conviction, and sent the case back to the trial court for a new trial, this time with correct and understandable jury instructions.

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