Open House Party Hosts, DWI Fatal Crashes, Criminal Negligence, & Manslaughter

Driving while intoxicated dramatically increases the chances of being involved in an alcohol-related traffic crash. That's why doing so is both dangerous and illegal and why we must continue our successful efforts to reduce the crime.

Of course, in attempting to reduce drunken driving, we must not violate the rights guaranteed to individuals by the United States Constitution or by state constitutions and laws.

Following several tragic alcohol-related traffic crashes that resulted in the deaths of young people, a prosecutor in Florida ran for office on a promise to crack down on open house parties at which underage adults consume alcohol. Following his election, he charged a woman with manslaughter because a young adult who became intoxicated at a gathering at her house later died along with his passenger in his speeding car.

Florida courts have found that serving alcohol to underage persons who are subsequently involved in accidents constitutes simple negligence rather than the culpable negligence required for manslaughter.

On the other hand, the legislature specifically determined that it is criminal negligence for an intoxicated person to drive a vehicle and if death results to any person as a result, it is the drunk driver who is criminally negligent and guilty of manslaughter.

However, the prosecutor attempted, in State of Florida v. Diane Katz Santarelli, to create duties and obligations that are not recognized by statute or common law and thereby to create criminal negligence, instead of simple negligence, on the part of Ms. Santarelli. The prosecutor did this in spite of the fact that the Supreme Court of Florida found that not even statutes passed by the legislature and signed by the governor that criminalize simple negligence are constitutional.

Although not even the legislature can criminalize simple negligence, the prosecutor attempted to do so himself by using a jury. This led to the observation that the prosecutor was attempting to "Nifong"1 the defendant in what was called an unprecedented case by the Florida Times-Union and unique by the St. Augustine Record.

Among other arguments, the prosecutor asserted that intoxication causes speeding and that the defendant should have known that an intoxicated young driver would probably or likely have a fatal crash.

The defense's expert witness testified (a) that intoxication does not cause speeding (some drunk drivers choose to speed whereas others choose to drive slowly in order to avoid apprehension) and (b) that it is not at all probable or likely that an underage drunken driver would be involved in a fatal crash (the chances are a few 10,000ths or less).

The jury took only about two hours to acquit the defendant of manslaughter charges. Defense attorney Gerald Bettman had long argued that the law did not support the prosecution's charges of manslaughter. "They knew from the beginning, if they'd done their homework, that the law did not support these charges," said Bettman, adding "It wasn't fair."

Following the verdict, Senior St. Johns Circuit Judge Richard O. Watson said that the proper place to change law is through the legislature. The prosecution had tried to change the law through the court.

Reference:

  • 1. Mike Nifong's politically-motivated prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players became persecution after it became apparent that they were innocent. Nifong was disbarred after a judicial panel found that he manipulated the investigation for personal political advantage and committed "a clear case of intentional prosecutorial misconduct" that involved "dishonesty, fraud, deceit and misrepresentation."

Readings on State of Florida v. Diane Katz Santarelli

  • Cannon, James. St. Johns mom escapes manslaughter conviction in death of underage party guests. Florida Times-Union, May 21, 2010.
  • Jurors hear unprecedented case of St. Johns County house party parent charged with manslaughter. Florida Times-Union, May 19, 2010.
  • Nifong will be disbarred for ethics violations. District attorney punished for "fiasco" prosecution of Duke lacrosse players. NBC Sports, June 18, 2007.
  • Prior, Richard. Woman acquitted of manslaughter. Jury convicts Santarelli on two misdemeanors; sentencing coming soon. St. Augustine Record, May 22, 2010.
  • Prior, Richard. Unique local manslaughter trial starts. Santarelli 1st to be charged in deaths after house party. St. Augustine Record, May 17, 2010.
  • Prior, Richard. Santarelli not guilty of manslaughter: Jury finds her guilty of having open house, contributing to delinquency of a minor. St. Augustine Record, May 21, 2010.
  • Coleman, Matt. Teen deaths after St. Johns house party lead to charges against parent. Prosecutor: First case of its kind in state history. Florida Times-Union, July 11, 2009.