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State v. Raczka

Court of Appeals of Wisconsin, District II

December 20, 2017

State of Wisconsin, Plaintiff-Respondent,
v.
Taran Q. Raczka, Defendant-Appellant.

         APPEAL from an order of the circuit court for Walworth County: No. 2015CF98, JAMES L. CARSON, Judge.

          Before Neubauer, C.J., Reilly, P.J., and Hagedorn, J.

          HAGEDORN, J.

         ¶1 On October 27, 2014, Taran Q. Raczka crashed his car into a tree, killing his passenger. Tests showed restricted controlled substances in his blood, and Raczka was charged with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and second-degree reckless homicide. Consistent with the affirmative defense in WIS. STAT. § 940.09(2)(a) (2015-16), [1] Raczka sought to present evidence that the accident was caused by a seizure and not the presence of controlled substances in his body. The circuit court, however, granted a motion in limine by the State to exclude all evidence relating to this defense. The issue is whether the circuit court erroneously exercised its discretion by excluding the evidence. We conclude it did. BACKGROUND

         ¶2 On a clear, dry October morning in 2014, Raczka picked up his coworker, Jeffrey Bonsall, around 8:30 a.m. and headed for work. Following a pressure washing job, the two headed off to a painting job. But at 9:30 a.m., Raczka's car suddenly veered off the road and crashed into a tree, killing Bonsall. The crash data indicated that the vehicle "drove off the road in a soft curve ... under power with no attempt at breaking." The vehicle was travelling close to the posted speed limit, and there was no evidence that Raczka had been distracted while he was driving. After the accident, a blood test revealed traces of marijuana and cocaine in Raczka's blood, both restricted controlled substances. Raczka admitted to using marijuana the weekend before the crash, but denied using it the day of the crash. The State charged Raczka with homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle and second-degree reckless homicide.[2]

         ¶3 Wisconsin law, however, provides that a defendant has an affirmative defense to homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle if "he or she proves by a preponderance of the evidence that the death would have occurred even if he or she had been exercising due care and ... did not have a detectable amount of a restricted controlled substance in his or her blood." WIS. STAT. § 940.09(2)(a). Raczka sought to raise this defense and meet this burden by showing that the accident was caused by a seizure.

         ¶4 To support his claim, Raczka proffered the following witness testimony along with related medical and police documentation. Raczka and his physician would testify that Raczka had a history of seizures. Bonsall's girlfriend would testify that Raczka appeared sober and awake when he picked up Bonsall at 8:30 a.m.-just an hour before the accident. The initial witness at the scene of the crash would testify that "he saw Mr. Raczka's arms flailing in an uncontrollable manner, " which Raczka's mother would testify is what Raczka's seizures looked like. Raczka's physician would also testify that a seizure caused the accident. Raczka too planned to testify that although he could not recall the accident, he believed he suffered a seizure that caused the accident.[3]

         ¶5 The State filed a motion in limine to prevent Raczka from presenting any evidence of a seizure with respect to any of Raczka's charges. Even assuming that Raczka suffered a seizure, the State maintained that he should not be allowed to offer this defense because Raczka was negligent in failing to take his prescribed seizure medication. The State relied on medical records indicating that Raczka was prescribed an antiseizure medication after suffering a seizure in 2011. He purportedly suffered another seizure sometime in the spring of 2014, but he did not go to the doctor at that time due to financial concerns. The records also indicated that Raczka did not take his medication "regularly, if at all" in the year leading up to the accident.

         ¶6 After a hearing, the circuit court concluded that any evidence that Raczka had a seizure was inadmissible because Raczka's failure to take his medication was negligent as a matter of law and a total bar to a defense under WIS. Stat. § 940.09(2)(a). The court explained that as a matter of law there must be "an independent cause out of the control of the defendant" to raise a plausible, valid defense. Raczka sought leave to appeal this order, which we granted. See Wis. Stat. Rule § 809.50(3).

         DISCUSSION

         ¶7 Whether to admit evidence is generally a discretionary decision by the circuit court. Martindale v. Ripp, 2001 WI 113, ¶28, 246 Wis.2d 67, 629 N.W.2d 698. However, "if the exercise of discretion is based on an incorrect legal standard, it is an erroneous exercise of discretion." Gallagher v. Grant-Lafayette Elec. Coop., 2001 WI.App. 276, ¶23, 249 Wis.2d 115, 637 N.W.2d 80. Because we disagree with the court's legal conclusion, we reverse the circuit court's order.

         ¶8 In an attempt to hold those who cause death by drugged driving accountable, the legislature enacted WIS. STAT. § 940.09 entitled, "Homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle or firearm." Section 940.09(1) provides in pertinent part that "[a]ny person who ... [c]auses the death of another by the operation or handling of a vehicle while under the influence of an intoxicant" or "while the person has a detectable amount of a restricted controlled substance in his or her blood" is guilty of a Class D Felony. See § 940.09(1)(am), (lc)(a). With regard to controlled substances, the State must prove: (1) the defendant operated a vehicle, (2) the operation of the vehicle caused the death of another, and (3) the defendant had a detectible amount of a restricted controlled substance in his or her blood. WIS JI-CRIMINAL 1187. Accordingly, where a blood test reveals the presence of a restricted controlled substance, [4] homicide by intoxicated use of a vehicle is a type of strict liability offense; the State only need prove that the restricted controlled substance was present and the defendant caused the death of another by using a motor vehicle. See id. The State need not prove that the defendant was impaired in any way or that the presence of restricted controlled substances had anything to do with the accident.

         ¶9 Though generally structured as a strict liability offense, it is not without exception. The legislature has provided an affirmative defense to the charge contained in WIS. STAT. § 940.09(2)(a). First enacted in 1981, the original version read as follows:

The actor has a defense if it appears by a preponderance of the evidence that the death would have occurred even if the actor had not been under the influence of an intoxicant or a ...

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