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United States v. Smith, No. 11-4336

Decided: December 17, 2012

Kristen Deanna Smith appealed her conviction by a jury of involuntary manslaughter, arguing that the district court committed three reversible errors. The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not commit reversible error and that sufficient evidence supported the jury’s verdict and accordingly affirmed Smith’s conviction.

In 2009, Smith’s car crossed the median of a highway, flipped several times, and finally crashed into a stone wall. Emergency medical technicians pronounced Smith’s passenger dead at the scene and transported Smith to the hospital, which administered a blood test. An officer monitoring Smith at the hospital testified that she made unsolicited statements, including: “Don’t ever drink and drive,” “I just hope he’s okay,” and “Lock me up and throw away the key.” Another blood draw conducted the next morning revealed that Smith had a blood alcohol content of .09. The government charged Smith with “homicide during the commission of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony,” in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1112(a); the underlying unlawful act, 34 C.F.R. § 4.23(a)(2), prohibits operating or controlling a vehicle with a blood alcohol content of .08 or greater. A jury convicted Smith of involuntary manslaughter and Smith appealed.

On appeal, Smith argued that the district court improperly admitted expert testimony about alcohol metabolization. The Fourth Circuit found that the prosecution’s summary of anticipated expert testimony, required to be delivered upon the defense’s request pursuant to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 16(a)(1)(G), was “less than fulsome,” but found that any error was harmless, as Smith failed to show prejudice. Next, Smith argued that the district court erred in failing to give a judgment of acquittal, because the government did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her blood alcohol level at the time of the accident exceeded .08. Interpretation of § 4.23(a)(2) varies; some courts require the government “directly prove a defendant’s blood alcohol content at the time he or she was driving,” while others hold it is sufficient to “produce[] evidence of blood alcohol levels within a reasonable time after driving.” The Fourth Circuit held that, based on all of the evidence, the government established a per se violation of § 4.23(a)(2), and thus concluded that Smith was not entitled to a judgment of acquittal. Finally, Smith argued that the district court’s refusal “to give her requested jury instruction concerning blood alcohol level extrapolation” amounted to error. Failure to give requested jury instructions is reviewed for abuse of discretion and constitutes a basis for reversal “only when the rejected instruction ‘(1) was correct; (2) was not substantially covered by the court’s charge to the jury; and (3) dealt with [an integral part of the trial], that failure to give the requested instruction seriously impaired the defendant’s ability to conduct his defense.’” United States v. Passaro, 577 F.3d 207, 211 (4th Cir. 2009). The Fourth Circuit held that the district court did not abuse its discretion because Smith’s proposed instruction “was not necessarily correct and…was ‘substantially covered by the court’s charge to the jury.’” The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s judgment.

Full Opinion

-Michelle Theret