The defendant was charged with multiple counts related to a DWI accident that resulted in the death of a child and serious injuries to another child who were passengers in a car that she struck from behind. The state charged the defendant with aggravated DWI and leaving the scene of the accident. She was also charged with intentional child abuse resulting in the death of a child and intentional child abuse not resulting in death. On both counts, she was charged in the alternative with negligent child abuse. Surprisingly, the state did not charge the defendant with vehicular homicide though it could have.
The defendant was convicted of aggravated DWI, leaving the scene of an accident and negligent child abuse. The defendant appealed the conviction of negligent child abuse to the New Mexico Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals sided with the defendant reversing the conviction of negligent child abuse for lack of substantial evidence necessary to meet the statutory definition of negligent child abuse. Double jeopardy attaches in a situation such as this where the conviction is reversed for lack of substantial evidence.
The Court of Appeals held that for intentional or negligent child abuse, there must have been a child identifiable to the defendant. More to the point, the Court concluded that convicted of child abuse, a “defendant‘s conduct must create a substantial and foreseeable risk of harm to an identified or identifiable child within the zone of danger.” The DWI accident, as horrible as it was, did not meet this requirement as it could not be shown that the children were identifiable by the defendant prior to the accident.
The State then attempted to charge the defendant with vehicular homicide. Again, the Court of Appeals ruled against the State ruling that subsequent charge for vehicular homicide violated the defendant‘s protections against double jeopardy. The Court ruled that the charge of vehicular homicide was a lessor included offense of negligent or intentional child abuse as was thus barred by double jeopardy.
The Fifth Amendment double jeopardy clause sets forth that no person shall “be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” This basically means that you cannot be prosecuted twice for the same offense. The State cannot simply keep retrying the same case against you until it gets a victory.
The State then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court sided with the Court of Appeals albeit on slightly different grounds. Rather than ruling that vehicular homicide was a lesser included offense, the Supreme Court ruled that the State was barred from bringing the vehicular homicide charges due to compulsory joinder. The Court stated, “Our rules of criminal procedure require that similar offenses be joined in one prosecution and not be brought piecemeal by way of sequential trials.”
Basically, the rules of compulsory joinder require that charges arising out of the same series of acts be brought together. The Court made clear that joinder in such cases is mandatory, not permissive.
This rule like double jeopardy makes perfect sense. Like double jeopardy, allowing the State to bring charges “piecemeal” as the Court suggested would allow the State to get multiple shots at convicted a person by simply bringing related charges successively rather than together. That would clearly be both unfair and highly burdensome to those charged in such a manner.