State v. Nazzal, ___ N.C. App. ___, ___ S.E.2d ___ (Mar. 3, 2020)

In this case arising from a fatal automobile collision involving convictions for second-degree murder, DWI, felony death by motor vehicle, and failure to maintain lane control, the trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the DWI and felony death by motor vehicle charges due to insufficient evidence of impairment.  There was, however, substantial evidence of malice with respect to second-degree murder and the trial court did not err in submitting that charge to the jury, nor did it err in submitting to the jury the failure to maintain lane control charge. 

Likening the case to its previous decision in State v. Eldred, 259 N.C. App. 345 (2018), the court found that there was insufficient evidence the defendant was impaired at the time of the collision where the officer who formed the opinion on impairment, an opinion based on observations occurring five hours after the collision, did so “entirely through passive observation” of the defendant, without requesting him to perform any field tests.  Moreover, the court noted, the officer did not ask the defendant if or when he and ingested any impairing substances.  The trial court erred by denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss the DWI charge, and, because DWI was a necessary element of the felony death by motor vehicle charge, also erred in denying the defendant’s motion to dismiss that charge.

Substantial evidence supported the failure to maintain lane control charge under G.S. 20-146(d)(1), a statute providing the disjunctive mandates that a motorist must (1) drive his or her vehicle “as nearly as  practicable entirely within a single lane” and (2) refrain from changing lanes unless he or she “has first ascertained that such movement can be made with safety.”  The defendant had argued that the fact that a tow truck partially obstructed his lane of travel meant that it was not “practicable” for him to drive entirely within that lane.  The court rejected that argument, finding that a reasonable juror could infer that the defendant could have avoided departing from his lane had he been traveling at a reasonable speed for conditions.  The court also explained that there was substantial evidence that the defendant failed to ascertain that his lane change movement could be made with safety as the tow truck also obstructed the defendant’s view of the perils which lay in his chosen lane change path.

The jury was instructed that the defendant would need to be found guilty of either DWI or failure to maintain lane control to be guilty of second degree murder, and having upheld his conviction on the lane control offense the court’s only remaining task was to determine whether there was substantial evidence that the defendant acted with malice.  Recounting the evidence in the light most favorable to the state, the court noted that the defendant was driving while knowing that his license was revoked for DWI and non-DWI offenses, was driving at an irresponsible speed for the icy conditions, made an unconventional maneuver to attempt to pass the tow truck partially obstructing his lane, became involved in a severe collision, left the scene without ascertaining whether anyone was harmed, and washed his car in an apparent attempt to destroy evidence and avoid apprehension.  The court also noted that the defendant’s extensive record of motor vehicle offenses and car accidents was published to the jury, allowing the jury to infer that he was aware of the risk to human life caused by his behavior on the road but nevertheless once again engaged in dangerous driving with indifference to its consequences.  This substantial evidence supported the element of malice by reckless disregard for human life.

Finally, the court determined that any error related to the admission of certain evidence was harmless because that evidence was relevant only to the issue of impairment, and further determined that the trial court’s denial of the defendant’s request for a jury instruction on the defense of accident, assuming the denial was error, was harmless because the jury’s verdicts suggested that it had rejected the notion that the defendant’s fatal unconventional traffic maneuver was unintentional.