Quick Take on Illinois Supreme Court Opinion Issued Thursday, April 20
A leading appellate attorney reviews the Illinois Supreme Court opinion handed down Thursday, April 20. The case is People v. Way.
By Kerry J. Bryson, Office of the State Appellate Defender
Ida Way was driving a vehicle when she crossed into oncoming traffic and struck another vehicle head-on, causing injuries to the driver of that vehicle as well as a passenger in her own car. Subsequent forensic testing revealed the presence of cannabis metabolite in Way's urine. She was charged with aggravated DUI based upon her having "any amount" of a drug, substance, or compound in her urine.
Way sought to defend against the charge by introducing evidence that a sudden, unforeseeable medical condition that caused her to lose consciousness was the proximate cause of the accident. She offered that her passenger would testify that she lost consciousness, three eyewitnesses would testify that they saw her shortly before the accident and she did not appear impaired, and her doctor would testify that it was possible that her loss of consciousness was due to her low blood pressure. The trial court rejected her request, concluding that the statute was one of strict liability "as to the accident." The appellate court looked to the law of proximate cause in civil cases and held that Way should have been permitted to present medical evidence.
The supreme court relied on its prior decision in People v. Martin, 2011 IL 109102, and affirmed that the central issue in an aggravated DUI case is proximate cause, not impairment. Specifically, "when an aggravated DUI charge is based on a violation of section 11-501(a)(6), as in this case, section 11-501(d)(1)(C) requires a causal link only between the defendant's physical act of driving and another person's injury or death.
The Court also looked to civil proximate cause law and went on to find that the trial court erred in concluding that Way was barred, as a matter of law, from raising the affirmative defense that the collision was caused "solely and exclusively" by her sudden, unforeseeable medical condition. To present a sudden, unforeseeable medical condition defense, the defendant bears the burden to establish that the medical condition is the "sole proximate cause," not just "a proximate cause." Here, defendant's offer of proof did not meet that standard; her doctor's testimony would only have been that her low blood pressure was a "possible" cause of her loss of consciousness which led to the accident. Therefore, the Court reversed the appellate court's grant of a new trial.
Justice Garman authored a special concurrence that was joined by Chief Justice Karmeier. She concluded that because there is no impairment element to a DUI charge under 11-501(a)(6), the only causal link is between a defendant's driving and another person's injury or death. By allowing a defendant to show medical cause, the State is then forced to rebut with evidence of impairment, contravening legislative intent.
The Court's decision opens the door for a defense to "any amount" aggravated DUI based upon a sudden, unforeseeable medical condition, but that door is not wide open. The burden on a defendant is a high one, requiring that the condition be proved to be the "sole proximate cause." It also raises the question of whether there might be other available defenses similar to those available to defend against proximate cause in civil cases — a question that is certain to be litigated in future cases.