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Chapman v. Commonwealth

Court of Appeals of Virginia

September 26, 2017

JOHN BEVERLY CHAPMAN, JR.
v.
COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA

         FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FREDERICK COUNTY N. Randolph Bryant, Judge.

          Jason E. Ransom (Ransom Law Office, on brief), for appellant.

          Victoria Johnson, Assistant Attorney General (Mark R. Herring, Attorney General, on brief), for appellee.

          Present: Judges Humphreys, Decker and Russell Argued at Winchester, Virginia.

          OPINION

          WESLEY G. RUSSELL, JR. JUDGE.

         John Beverly Chapman, Jr., appellant, was convicted in a bench trial of felony reckless driving that caused the death of a passenger, in violation of Code §§ 46.2-852 and 46.2-868(B).[1]On appeal, he contends that the trial court misinterpreted the requirements of Code § 46.2-868(B) and that the Commonwealth's evidence was insufficient to sustain a conviction when the statutory elements are correctly identified. For the reasons that follow, we affirm appellant's conviction.

         BACKGROUND

         At about 5:30 a.m. on August 21, 2015, Trooper Josh Meyers of the Virginia State Police observed a car's tail light at the bottom of an embankment off of Route 522 in Frederick County. After investigating the accident, Trooper Meyers determined that appellant had fallen asleep while driving himself and two co-workers to a job site. The car veered off the road and down the embankment, flipping over at least three times before landing on its roof in a field. Appellant, who was wearing a seat belt, was not injured. The passenger in the front seat, who was not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car and sustained serious injuries. The passenger in the back seat (hereinafter the "victim"), also not wearing a seat belt, was ejected from the car. He became caught under the car as it rolled and died at the scene from blunt force trauma to his head, neck, and extremities.

         Pertinent to this appeal, appellant was charged with violating Code § 46.2-868(B) as a result of the accident. Code § 46.2-868(B) provides that

[e]very person convicted of reckless driving under the provisions of this article who, when he committed the offense, (i) was driving without a valid operator's license due to a suspension or revocation for a moving violation and, (ii) as the sole and proximate result of his reckless driving, caused the death of another, is guilty of a Class 6 felony.

         Appellant stipulated at trial that falling asleep while driving was reckless driving and that his driver's license had been revoked previously for a moving violation. Appellant argued that the evidence did not establish that the victim's death was "the sole and proximate result" of appellant's driving. Appellant asserted the victim died, at least in part, because he was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle.

         After the Commonwealth rested, appellant made a motion to strike the evidence as to the reckless driving that led to the death of the victim. Comparing Code § 46.2-868(B) to the elements of various involuntary manslaughter statutes, which reference only "cause" and do not contain the phrase "sole and proximate result" or "sole cause, " appellant argued that the Commonwealth had not shown that the victim's death was the "sole and proximate result" of his reckless driving.

         In response, the trial court stated, "I think that there is a distinct difference between whether it is proximate causation, which is what the manslaughter statute uses and which is the focus, generally, in personal injury cases, as opposed to the reckless driving statute which refers to it as the sole and proximate result." The trial court continued:

I cannot conclude that his failure to wear the seatbelt or his wearing of a seatbelt, particularly based on the evidence before the Court that the other unbelted passenger survived, that that was a sole and proximate result. In fact, it does appear to the Court that had it not been for the Defendant falling asleep, going off the side of the road, and then the vehicle not only flipping but flipping end over end three times, the Court concludes at this juncture that [the victim's death] is the sole and proximate result [of the reckless driving] . . . .

         Appellant did not present evidence and then renewed his motion to strike. In finding appellant guilty, the court stated, "I don't have much difficulty with the conclusion that [the] sole and proximate cause [of death] was the reckless driving of the [d]efendant."

         This appeal followed with appellant arguing that the plain language of Code § 46.2-868(B) requires the Commonwealth to prove that the victim's death was the "sole and proximate result" of appellant's reckless driving and that the evidence was insufficient to establish that fact.[2]

         ANALYSIS

         I. Standard of Review

         In arguing that the trial court misinterpreted the requirements of Code § 46.2-868(B), appellant presents a question of statutory interpretation that we review de novo. Conyers v. Martial Arts World of Richmond, Inc., 273 Va. 96, 104, 639 S.E.2d 174, 178 (2007) (citations omitted). However, in conducting our review, "the factual findings of the circuit court are not to be disturbed unless they are plainly wrong or ...


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