This opinion will be unpublished and
may not be cited except as provided by
Minn. Stat. § 480A.08, subd. 3 (1998).
STATE OF MINNESOTA
IN COURT OF APPEALS
State of Minnesota,
Vincent Michael Holthaus,
Filed June 27, 2000
Hennepin County District Court
File No. 98-097472
Mike Hatch, Attorney General, 525 Park St., Suite 500, St. Paul, MN 55103; and
Amy Klobuchar, Hennepin County Attorney, Gayle C. Hendley, Assistant County Attorney, C-2000 Government Ctr., Minneapolis, MN 55487 (for respondent)
Douglas W. Thomson, Lisa Lodin Peralta, Suite W-1260, 332 Minnesota St., St. Paul, MN 55101 (for appellant)
Considered and decided by Klaphake, Presiding Judge, Kalitowski, Judge, and Stoneburner, Judge.
Appellant Vincent Michael Holthaus challenges his conviction on two counts of criminal vehicular homicide under Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 1(4) (driver causes death as result of operating motor vehicle while having alcohol concentration over .10), (7) (driver causing accident leaves scene) (1998). Holthaus argues that the trial court improperly admitted and credited the testimony of an eyewitness, who stated that Holthaus was driving over 70 miles per hour when his Chevrolet Blazer overtook and rode over the top of an all-terrain vehicle (ATV). The passenger of the ATV was thrown onto the hood of the Blazer, landed on the highway, and later died from his injuries. Holthaus also claims the evidence is insufficient on the issue of causation, arguing that the evidence fails to establish that his conduct was the proximate cause of the ATV passenger’s death and that the trial court failed to consider the negligent conduct of the ATV’s driver and passenger, who were traveling in the driving lane of a rural, dark highway on a vehicle not legally equipped for highway travel.
Because the eyewitness testimony was properly admitted and because sufficient evidence was presented to support causation, we affirm Holthaus’ convictions.
The trial court’s decision whether to admit eyewitness testimony regarding the speed of a vehicle is discretionary and will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of that discretion. Ramirez v. Miska, 304 Minn. 4, 9-10, 228 N.W.2d 871, 874 (1975).
[A]ny person of ordinary ability and intelligence, having the means and opportunity of observation, is competent to testify as to the rate of speed at which a vehicle is moving.
Holthaus’ argument is that it was impossible for the eyewitness to estimate accurately the speed of his Blazer because it was dark and the eyewitness was traveling in the opposite direction. The record reveals that the eyewitness had significant personal driving experience as a truck and limousine driver, testified that he observed the oncoming Blazer and ATV for some period of time and for a distance of approximately one-quarter mile, and estimated the speed of the ATV at 30 miles per hour. This testimony was consistent with the physical evidence and the testimony of others at the scene. Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting and crediting the eyewitness’ testimony regarding the speed of the Blazer at the time of the collision.
Where there is a challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence, our review is limited to “a very thorough analysis of the record to determine whether the evidence, viewed in a light most favorable to the jury’s verdict, was sufficient to permit the jury to reach its verdict.” State v. Spann, 574 N.W.2d 47, 53 (Minn. 1988) (citation omitted). We must ascertain “whether [a trier of fact] could reasonably find the defendant guilty, given the facts in the evidence and the legitimate inferences which could be drawn from those facts.” State v. Robinson, 604 N.W.2d 355, 366-67 (Minn. 2000) (citation omitted). On a sufficiency of the evidence claim, we review a bench trial under the same standard of review as a jury verdict. See State v. Hough, 585 N.W.2d 393, 396 (Minn. 1998).
Holthaus argues that the trial court failed to properly consider the negligence of the ATV’s driver and passenger. While he agrees that their contributory negligence is not a defense, he argues that their negligence is relevant on the issue of whether he caused the passenger’s death. See State v. Munnell, 344 N.W.2d 883, 888 (Minn. App. 1984) (victim’s negligence cannot be defense in criminal vehicular homicide case, but it “is relevant on the questions of whether the defendant was negligent, and, if so, whether that negligence was the proximate cause of the victim’s injuries.”)
The state counters that the subsections under which Holthaus was charged and convicted do not require negligence on Holthaus’ part. Those subsections state that a person may be convicted of criminal vehicular homicide
if the person causes the death of a human being * * * as a result of operating a motor vehicle:
* * *
(4) while having an alcohol concentration of 0.10 or more, as measured within two hours of the time of driving;
(7) where the driver who causes the accident leaves the scene of the accident in violation of section 169.09, subdivision 1 or 6.
Minn. Stat. § 609.21, subd. 1(4), (7). Although these subsections do not specifically require any negligent conduct by Holthaus, as with any criminal statute, they do require that Holthaus “intend[ed] to do the act which constituted the crime.” State v. Kremer, 262 Minn. 190, 191-92, 114 N.W.2d 88, 89-90 (1962) (driver, who was unable to stop for red light because his brakes failed and had no notice that his brakes were defective, could not be convicted of going through red light). In this case, Holthaus undisputedly knew that he was operating a vehicle while intoxicated, that he was involved in an accident, and that he left the scene of that accident when he drove away. Thus, the evidence establishes the necessary criminal intent, mens rea, or scienter. See State v. Morse, 281 Minn. 378, 380-82, 161 N.W.2d 699, 700-02 (1968) (discussing criminal intent as essential element of crimes).
Direct, Substantial, or Proximate Cause
The trial court concluded that Holthaus’ conduct was a substantial cause of the ATV passenger’s death, based on evidence that Holthaus (1) was driving with a .24 blood alcohol content; (2) failed to see the ATV or avoid it until he hit it; (3) was driving at an excessive rate of speed; (4) was driving beyond the range of his headlights; and (5) failed to keep a proper lookout.
Holthaus argues that the court’s analysis is flawed, because it examined only whether his conduct constituted a “substantial cause” of the ATV passenger’s death; Holthaus contends that the court’s analysis must consider whether a defendant’s conduct was the proximate cause of the death. But Minnesota civil law uses interchangeably the terms “direct” cause, “substantial” cause, and “proximate” cause. See 4 Minnesota Practice CIVJIG 27.10 & Authorities, at 179-81 (1999) (defining direct or proximate cause as “cause that had a substantial part in bring about the (collision) (accident) (event) (harm) (injury).”) Thus, the trial court in discussing substantial cause analyzed properly the causation issue in this case.
Holthaus argues that some of the acts cited by the trial court as having caused the ATV passenger’s death are redundant or repetitive. We disagree. Although the specific acts of out-driving the headlights and failing to see the ATV and its passenger may fall within the broader categories of speeding and failure to keep proper lookout, they are not identical.
Holthaus also argues that insufficient foundation supports the trial court’s findings. He reiterates his argument regarding the lack of foundation for the eyewitness’ testimony on his speed, argues that no evidence was presented to show that he was outdriving his headlights, and emphasizes that the court disregarded evidence of the ATV driver’s negligence and failed to consider the effect of the oncoming headlights from the eyewitnesses’ car as a factor contributing to the accident. The trial court’s findings on these points, however, are supported by inferences derived from the evidence presented at trial, including the undisputed physical evidence and Holthaus’ own statement within hours after the collision that he did not see the ATV or apply his brakes until after the ATV passenger had flown onto the hood of the Blazer. See State v. VanZee, 547 N.W.2d 387, 391 (Minn. App. 1996) (trial court’s finding not clearly erroneous where “totality of evidence” supported inference lending to finding).
Holthaus claims that the “only thing that can really be held against [him] is that he was driving with a 0.24 BAC.” The evidence presented at trial also established that a person intoxicated to that level exhibits “confusion, disorientation, increased reaction time, euphoria, excitement, increase in self-confidence and decrease in judgment, control and vision.” In addition, a number of witnesses who observed and spoke to Holthaus after the collision confirmed that he was exhibiting these symptoms. And Holthaus’ taped interview a few hours after the collision further confirmed his confusion and impaired judgment. Given this evidence, the trial court could infer that Holthaus’ intoxication and other conduct were substantial factors in causing the ATV passenger’s death.
Holthaus next argues that the negligent actions of the ATV’s driver and passenger constitute superseding causes that relieve him of liability for criminal vehicular homicide. A superseding cause may break the chain of causation if it occurs after the defendant’s act and operates as an independent force to produce an injury. 4 Minnesota Practice, CIVJIG 27.20 (1999); see also In re Welfare of C.P.W., 601 N.W.2d 204, 209 (Minn. App. 1999) (first driver’s unlawful conduct in running red light and colliding with another vehicle did not constitute intervening superseding cause relieving second driver of liability where second driver was chasing first driver but stopped before intersection). The actions of the ATV driver and passenger, who were traveling in the driving lane of a rural, dark road on a vehicle not legally equipped for highway travel, cannot be characterized as occurring after Holthaus’ conduct or between Holthaus’ conduct and the collision. At best, the actions of the ATV driver and passenger occurred simultaneously or concurrently with those of Holthaus. See 4 Minnesota Practice CIVJIG 27.15 (1999) (discussing concurrent causes). As such, they cannot be considered superseding, intervening causes so as to relieve Holthaus of criminal liability.
It is undisputed that Holthaus was driving while extremely intoxicated and that he left the scene of an accident. It is also undisputed that Holthaus drove his Blazer into the back and over the top of the ATV, causing the passenger to be thrown onto the hood of the Blazer and then onto the highway and resulting in the passenger’s death. Under these circumstances, the record includes sufficient evidence of direct cause to support Holthaus’ convictions.
 In examining causation, courts have employed civil law concepts and definitions of proximate cause and superseding cause. See, e.g., State v. Sutherlin, 396 N.W.2d 238, 240-41 (Minn. 1986) (evidence sufficient to sustain conviction for premeditated intentional murder if defendant’s actions in firing gun were “substantial causal factor” in deaths); State v. Jaworsky, 505 N.W.2d 638, 642-43 (Minn. App. 1993) (to sustain conviction for criminal vehicular homicide, evidence must show that defendant’s act was “proximate cause” of death and that no superseding cause broke chain of causation), review denied (Minn. Sept. 30, 1993).