Leaving After Colliding in D.C. requires proof of mens rea

by Jamison Koehler on March 1, 2019
Proving mens rea in DC

James Crawford was accused of backing his car into another car in a parking garage and driving off – at 10 miles per hour. 

Police heard the crash and stopped Crawford a half a block away.  Crawford’s balance was off, his eyes seemed heavy and bloodshot, and he smelled of alcohol.  Crawford told officers he had no idea he had hit another car.  He failed the standardized field sobriety tests. 

David Richter represented him at trial and obviously did a good job:  Judge Yvonne Williams acquitted his client of driving under the influence.  But the court convicted him of Leaving After Colliding – Property Damage (LAC-PD) even after stating that the judge was not sure Crawford was aware of the collision: “This happens to me, quite frankly, and maybe, perhaps when [Crawford] was pulling he didn’t realize he had hit the car because the damage to the bumper is so slight . .”

The D.C. Court of Appeals remanded in James Crawford v. District of Columbia, 192 A.3d 568 (D.C. 2018).  This was because, contrary to the trial court’s assertion, the statute does in fact require mens rea:  The person operating the vehicle “must know[] or ha[ve] reason to believe” that his or her vehicle was in an accident.  D.C. Code § 50-2201.05c(a).  The trial court was instructed to “weigh the evidence in the record afresh and render a new verdict.” 

Judge Frank Q. Nebeker issued a biting dissent, surprising perhaps because of his candor. The trial judge, according Nebeker, “delivered a prolonged and rambling monologue in which she discredited the officers’ testimony about hearing and seeing a crash” and then concluded that Crawford was “technically” guilty:  “Of course, there is no such verdict; there is either guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, or not guilty.”  The D.C. Court of Appeals should reverse the decision, not remand the case:  “once an expression of innocence is conveyed by the trial judge, that expression is ‘in the cloud,’ i.e., it cannot be taken back or unsaid.”