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Michigan Motor Vehicle Code Section 625(4) (MCL 257.625(4)): Operating While Intoxicated Causing Death

1. Definition and Elements of the Crime

Most operating while intoxicated (OWI) cases don’t involve accidents or serious injuries. A police officer on patrol notices “bad driving” (weaving, swerving, etc.), pulls the car over, notices “signs of intoxication” from the driver (smell of alcohol, bloodshot eyes, etc.), and the driver is eventually arrested. A run-of-the-mill OWI is a misdemeanor, and most judges will not order jail time.

Sometimes, though, an OWI can lead to tragedy—the death of another person. Most often this happens when a client causes an accident that kills another driver or one of the client’s passengers. Suddenly, a misdemeanor has turned into a felony, and the likely consequences have moved behind jail time to a prison sentence.

There are five elements to OWI causing death, all of which the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. First, the defendant operated a motor vehicle. Operate means to drive or have actual physical control of the vehicle.
  2. Second, the defendant operated the vehicle on a highway or other place open to the public or generally accessible to motor vehicles, including a designated parking area.
  3. Third, the defendant was intoxicated or impaired by alcohol, a controlled substance, or an intoxicating substance, meaning:
    1. The defendant had a bodily alcohol level of 0.08 grams or more per 100 milliliters of blood, 210 liters of breath, or 67 milliliters of urine;
    2. The defendant was under the influence of alcohol;
    3. The defendant was under the influence of a controlled substance;
    4. The defendant was under the influence of an intoxicating substance;
    5. Due to the drinking of alcohol or use or consumption of a controlled substance or use or consumption of an intoxicating substance, the defendant drove with less ability than would an ordinary careful driver.
    6. The defendant had in his or her body any amount of a schedule 1 controlled substance or cocaine.
  4. Fourth, the defendant voluntarily decided to drive knowing that he or she had consumed alcohol or a controlled substance or an intoxicating substance and might be intoxicated.
  5. Fifth, the defendant’s operation of the vehicle caused the victim’s death.

When will the defendant’s operation of the vehicle be the cause of the victim’s death? But for the defendant’s operation of the vehicle, the death would not have occurred. Additionally, the death must have been a direct and natural result of operating the vehicle.

2. Examples

A man and his friend go out to a bar for a few drinks one winter night. On the way back, the man is speeding down the road, loses traction on a patch of ice, and crashes into a tree. The friend is killed instantly. The driver is seriously injured and taken to a hospital. Police obtain a search warrant to draw his blood. The result shows a bodily alcohol content of 0.12.

A woman is driving in a busy metropolitan area and hits a pedestrian in a crosswalk. The pedestrian—scraped and bruised but apparently all right—is taken to a hospital as a precaution. Police officers who arrive at the scene notice that the driver is slurring her speech and unsteady on her feet. She agrees to submit to a breath test, which shows a bodily alcohol level of 0.15. A day later, the pedestrian dies in the hospital.

3. Related Offenses

Other similar or related offenses include:

  1. Operating while intoxicated causing serious impairment of a body function, MCL 257.625(5)
  2. Operating with an unlawful bodily alcohol content, MCL 257.625(1)(b)
  3. Operating with a high BAC, MCL 257.625(1)(c)

4. Defenses to Operating While Intoxicated Causing Death

Two common defenses in OWI causing death cases are (1) intervening cause of death, and (2) search and seizure violations.

Take the man whose friend died on the way home from the bar. Assume that there are no witnesses to the accident. The prosecution’s case will hinge on the blood test result. Suppose that in the application for a search warrant, the police officer had merely written that the driver had been seen speeding before the accident. This implicates the probable-cause requirement for issuance of a warrant under the Fourth Amendment. If the allegations in a warrant application don’t provide reason to believe that the person committed the alleged crime, the warrant is invalid. Here, that the driver had been seen speeding before the accident, standing alone, will not supply probable cause to believe that the man was operating while intoxicated, so the blood test result will be inadmissible, potentially sinking the prosecution’s case.

Now consider the woman who hit the pedestrian. There’s no question that the accident sent the pedestrian to the hospital, where she later died. But let’s add some details. Suppose she was operated on by a surgeon who, confusing her with another patient, attempted open heart surgery on her, during which she died. Under the law, a doctor’s gross negligence is considered an “intervening cause” that can supersede the car accident as the cause of the pedestrian’s death. Here, then, the driver very likely would not be liable for causing the pedestrian’s death.

5. Penalties

OWI causing death is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. If the driver’s bodily alcohol content was 0.17 or above, the offense is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Likewise, if the victim was a police officer, firefighter, or other emergency response personnel, the offense is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.

6. Criminal Defense for Operating While Intoxicated Causing Death

If you’re under investigation for or have been charged with OWI causing death, you need to hire a skilled criminal defense attorney as soon as possible. Prosecutors pursue OWI causing death charges aggressively, often refusing to offer a plea bargain. In other words, you need an attorney who’s ready to fight the case at trial.

For more information about OWI causing death and to talk about your case, contact Grabel & Associates at (800) 342-7896.

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