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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Coming Soon to a Dashboard Near You

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Let's talk a little bit about murder.  Do you have any difficulty drawing the line between culpable conduct and tragic accident?  There are shades of gray, to be sure, but this seems crystal clear to me.

Defendant was driving his truck and watching a movie as it played on a DVD screen on the dashboard.  (At least this is what the prosecution contends and they seem to have it figured out)  He crossed the line, smashed into an oncoming car (No one in the other car seems to have been watching a movie) and killed two human beings.  Because he was distracted.  By a movie.

To be fair and balanced (I am using this while I still can before Fox trademarks it and I have to get a new motto) I will mention that defendant says he was not watching a movie.  The DVD player, the one on the dash there, was open but he wasn't watching a movie.  Oh, yeah, he did wire it to bypass the safety so he could watch it while the truck ran but he wasn't watching it at this time.  and when he told his X that he wasn't sure what had happened because he was watching a movie... that was just an unfortunate slip of the tongue since he was not watching a movie when this accident occurred.  That's the end of my fair and balanced analysis because I am tired of this guy already.

At what point does distraction turn into a mens rea for murder?  (For the non-legally inclined, mens rea is just a fancy lawyer word for state of mind)  Is it really fair to call someone a murderer simply because they had a car accident?  The answer is; It depends.

My torts prof was adamant that there are no accidents, only unintended consequences.  The word accident is too nebulous for lawyers.  We like it crisp and clean.  Take murder.  At common law murder is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.  There is no element mentioned in there that says anything about accidents.  So, what we must be interested in is what this malice aforethought means in regard to accidents.

Obviously, if someone points a gun at you, screams "Die, mofo, die." and then fires point blank we can presume that he intended to kill you.  That's murder.  But what if someone points a gun at the sky and screams "Happy fourth of July!" and then fires?  Is that murder if someone is hit by that bullet and ends up dead?  How about driving a car on a street after drinking a 6 pack of Bud?  While applying mascara?  While text messaging your friends?

All of these behaviors create an appreciable and substantial risk of serious harm to others.  The mere fact that you did not intend to kill anyone shouldn't change the outcome one bit.  So long as you intended the act that created the risk.  If you watch movies while you drive and someone ends up dead,  you deserve to be punished just like the guy that shoots his gun into the air.  We all know that bullets kill people and we also know that cars kill people.  In this case, two people.

Defendant here is most likely going to be convicted.  The victims here are clearly going to stay dead.  What I would like to know is why do we need dash board DVD players in the first place?  I understand that they come with safety features so that they should only play when the vehicle is in park but I also understand this is pretty easy to bypass.  What I don't understand is why we need them at all.  Even if they are installed in the back, they serve to distract the drivers of other cars.  (Have you ever been driving down the freeway, minding your own business, only to see porn playing on a screen in an adjacent car? Explain that to the kids.)  Is there going to be any responsibility taken by the industry that pushes this unnecessary and dangerous crap into our cars?

If you do the risk vs. utility analysis of this product, you'll find it is inherently dangerous (Just like that family fun game Lawn Darts).  Cardozo's fabled "orbit of danger" has at it's very center a DVD player and countless glassy eyed viewers.**

**I apologize to the uninitiated for the pure law school stuff.


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