Texas has more than its share of bad drivers. One of its cities, San Antonio, ranks in the top ten among the nation’s most dangerous drivers.
In 2016, there were 3,773 traffic fatalities in Texas, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.
The question is this: when does reckless driving that results in a fatality become a felony in Texas?
There are generally two criminal charges the State may bring against a defendant when a vehicle accident results in a fatality, when intoxication is not an issue: manslaughter and/or criminally negligent homicide.
This type of homicide charge is most often referred to a “vehicular manslaughter.” Because there is no specific statute defining vehicular manslaughter, this offense is charged under the Texas manslaughter statute, Penal Code § 19.04, which states that a person commits manslaughter if he or she “recklessly causes the death of an individual.”
Texas Penal Code § 6.03, the State, in order to establish recklessness, must prove: 1) the defendant’s conduct caused the death of an individual; 2) that he defendant should have been aware his conduct created a “substantial and unjustifiable” risk of death; and 3) the risk was of such a “nature and degree” that the failure to perceive it constitutes a “gross deviation” from the standard of care that “an ordinary person would exercise under the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.”
Thus, a person can be charged with vehicular manslaughter if he or she operates a vehicle in such a reckless manner that it led to the death of another individual. This offense is a second-degree felony punishable with a term of imprisonment from two to 20 years.
Criminally negligent homicide, as defined by Texas Penal Code § 19.05, can be brought when a person, while operating a vehicle, causes the death of another by criminal negligence. Under this statute, the State must prove: 1) defendant neglected their reasonable duty to prevent a death; 2) the defendant’s action directly caused a death; and 3) the defendant was aware of the risk created by their actions.
Criminally negligent homicide is a state jail felony punishable by 180 days to two years in prison.
This is how these laws work in real time.
Robert Alan Queeman was driving his van behind a SUV driven by Maria del Rosario Luna on Highway 90 in Kinney County. He was traveling at a speed he estimated to be 36 or 37 mph, which was under the 40-mph speed limit. Ms. Luna abruptly slowed the SUV to make a left-hand turn onto a street intersecting the highway. Unable to stop, Queeman’s van rear-ended the SUV sending the vehicle into a collision with an oncoming truck. That collision resulted in the death of one of Ms. Luna’s two female passengers.
Queeman said Ms. Luna did not signal a left-hand turn. Ms. Luna could not recall whether she did or not.
DPS Trooper Tully Welch arrived at the scene to investigate the accident. His accident report determined: 1) the Luna SUV was stopped or nearly stopped with its taillights illuminated; and 2) Queeman’s van did not brake until moments before or at the time it struck the SUV.
Trooper Welch ticketed Luna for failing to use her turn signal and ticketed Queeman for failure to maintain control of his speed. The trooper did not ticket Queeman for speeding.
The State subsequently charged Queeman in a two-count indictment with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide. He pled not guilty and faced a jury. Jurors acquitted him of manslaughter but found him guilty of criminally negligent homicide. The trial court then sentenced him to eighteen months in a state jail facility.
Insufficient Evidence in Criminally Negligent Homicide Trial
In January 2016, the Fourth District Court of Appeals reversed Queeman’s conviction finding that the State had presented insufficient evidence that he was criminally negligent for the death of the passenger in Luna’s SUV.
The State sought discretionary review of that reversal before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
On June 14, 2017, the Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the Fourth District’s reversal of Queeman’s conviction, finding the State had failed to prove that Queeman had operated his vehicle in a criminally negligent manner.
Prosecutorial Overreach in Car Accident Cases Involving Death
The State had based its case primarily on Trooper Welch’s finding that Queeman was traveling “significantly” faster than the 40-mph speed limit.
Both courts rejected this premise, finding that “the evidence presented could not have provided the jury a basis from which to reasonably infer that [Queeman] was traveling at an ‘excessive rate of speed.’”
This finding was based on three evidentiary factors: 1) Trooper Welch did not “quantify [Queeman’s] pre-impact speed;” 2) the trooper did not ticket Queeman for speeding; and 3) Queeman’s vehicle hit Luna’s SUV “at an angle rather than straight from behind [which] indicated that [Queeman’s] tried to swerve to avoid the accident.
The Queeman case is a classic example of prosecutorial overreach. The first red flag for the prosecution should have been Trooper Welch’s failure to ticket Queeman for speeding. If Queeman was speeding “significantly” above the 40-mph speed limit as the trooper believed, he should have written a ticket for speeding, not failure to maintain control of speed.
The end result is that Queeman spent 18 months in a state jail facility for a crime he did not commit because prosecutors did not properly examine the facts of the case.