This criminal proceeding raises for the first time the question of whether the Legislature intended that all criminal homicide prosecutions for death resulting from the reckless driving of a vehicle be limited to a death by auto charge under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5. This court holds that it did not.
The setting in which this issue arises occurred on April 3, 1984 at 8:49 p.m. Defendant, Patrick Potts, was driving a Ford sedan southbound on County Road 625 (Hogbin or Center Grove Road) while allegedly intoxicated when he admittedly ran through a stop sign that he knew was there and collided with a Chevy pick-up driven by David Sheppard westbound on County Road 620 (Buckshutem Road). The momentum from the impact was so great that both vehicles were propelled into an open field, where they became engulfed in flames. Sheppard was burned beyond recognition and was pronounced dead at the
scene. Defendant's brother, Thomas Potts, an occupant of defendant's Ford sedan, was transported to Millville Hospital where he died as a result of his injuries.
A blood sample taken from defendant in the hospital at 9:42 p.m. disclosed a blood alcohol content of 0.142%. Further investigation disclosed an eight-pack of 12-ounce beer bottles in the vehicle. Potts' vehicle was found to be in high gear after the accident.
As a result of the fatal collision, Potts was indicted on two counts of aggravated manslaughter under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(a), two counts of manslaughter under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4(b) and two counts of death by auto under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5.
Defendant brought this motion to dismiss the manslaughter and aggravated manslaughter counts of the indictment on the grounds that a reckless killing by auto cannot fall within those statutory provisions, but must be limited to prosecution under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5, death by auto. The arguments of defendant rely heavily on legislative intent. That is, had the Legislature intended that cases involving death by auto be prosecuted under N.J.S.A. 2C:11-4, it would have either expressly indicated that fact, or it would never have enacted the death by auto statute, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5. In support of his argument, he relies upon the legislative history of N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5, the comments of the Criminal Law Revision Commission, and canons of statutory construction.
Analysis of the legislative history of the death by auto statute discloses that the Legislature rejected a negligent homicide statute that stated that "[c]riminal homicide constitutes negligent homicide when it is committed negligently under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life." I Final Report of the New Jersey Criminal Law Revision Commission, at 51 (1971). It felt that the concept of negligent homicide was too broad. Senate Judiciary Committee Statement to Senate Bill 738 (1978), with Senate Committee amendments at 4. Instead of a general statute, the Legislature adopted a specific statutory section addressing death by
auto which stated that "[c]riminal homicide constitutes death by auto when it is caused by driving a vehicle carelessly and heedlessly, in a willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others." L. 1978, c. 95.
In 1981, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5 was amended changing the culpability requirement from driving a vehicle "carelessly and heedlessly in a willful or wanton disregard of the rights or safety of others" to "driving a vehicle 'recklessly'". L. 1981, c. 312. The change reflected the levels of criminal culpability proscribed by N.J.S.A. 2C:2-2. In adopting the 1981 amendment, the Senate stated in pertinent part that "Senate Bill No. 1417 would lower the standard of conduct required for a conviction under New Jersey's death by auto statute. It is felt that the present standard is too restrictive making convictions a virtual impossibility." Senate Judiciary Committee Statement to Senate Bill 1417 (1980).
In 1983, N.J.S.A. 2C:11-5 was again amended to add a mandatory minimum sentence of imprisonment or community service for defendants convicted of death by auto who were operating the vehicle under the ...