Louisiana v. Trahan
Opinion Date: December 10, 2021
Judge: Per Curiam
Areas of Law: Constitutional Law, Criminal Law
In 2015, applicant Elizabeth Trahan was involved in a tragic automobile accident, which resulted in a fatality. Applicant and her boyfriend were in a Dodge Charger, which was traveling north at 72 mph in the left lane on Highway 167 between Maurice and Abbeville, Lousiana. Motorcyclist Carl Johnson passed them on the right, switched into the left lane in front of them, and then braked, apparently intending to turn left across the highway median. Skid marks showed that the driver of the Charger attempted to stop. The Charger collided with the motorcycle and Johnson was killed. A jury found applicant guilty of vehicular homicide, for which the trial court sentenced her to 15 years imprisonment at hard labor, with all but six years of the sentence suspended, and with three years of active supervised probation. Regarding whether the State proved that applicant’s impairment was a contributing factor, the court of appeal acknowledged that metabolites detected in applicant’s blood and urine, standing alone, did “not allow the jury to assume the defendant was impaired or that the presence of those substances was a contributing factor in the accident.” However, the court of appeal found that the jury could consider additional circumstances, such as the fact that applicant exceeded the speed limit and was unable to stop in time to avoid the accident, to conclude that drugs impaired her driving and thus contributed to the accident. The dissent observed that expert testimony in conjunction with evidence of behavioral manifestations of intoxication was ordinarily used to establish that a driver was impaired, and no such evidence was offered by the State in this case. The Louisiana Supreme Court agreed with the court of appeals' dissent that a jury could not reasonably conclude from the evidence presented at trial that applicant was impaired or that her impairment was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, and therefore the conviction could not survive appellate review under the due process standard of Jackson v. Virginia. Because a rational trier of fact could not reasonably conclude, without speculating, that applicant’s ingestion of controlled dangerous substances was a contributing factor to the fatal accident, the Supreme Court concluded applicant was entitled to an acquittal under Hudson v. Louisiana, 450 U.S. 40(1981). Accordingly, the Court reversed the ruling of the court of appeal, vacated applicant’s conviction and sentence for vehicular homicide, and entered a judgment of acquittal.
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