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State v. Larson - 2004 MT 345, 324 Mont. 310, 103 P.3d 524 (Mont. 2004)

Rule:

Issues concerning the admissibility of evidence are within the discretion of the district court. The trial court is vested with great latitude in ruling on the admissibility of expert testimony. A district court has broad discretion to determine whether evidence is relevant and admissible, and absent an abuse of discretion, an appellate court will not overturn that court's ruling. The test for abuse of discretion is whether the trial court acted arbitrarily without employment of conscientious judgment or exceeded the bounds of reason resulting in substantial injustice.

Facts:

Defendant Mark Theodore Larson was involved in a one-vehicle rollover. The vehicle rolled over and ejected the three occupants, Larson, Clare and Lynn Morgan. Clare sustained blunt-force trauma to the head and died as a result of his injuries. The paramedics who treated Larson at the scene and in the ambulance smelled alcohol on his breath. The State filed an Information charging Larson with one count of negligent homicide, one count of driving under the influence of alcohol, a misdemeanor, and one count of speeding, a misdemeanor. Prior to trial Montana state court, the State filed a motion in limine to exclude any evidence of the deceased victim’s blood alcohol concentration. Also, Larson filed a motion in limine to exclude any evidence involving the "retrograde extrapolation" of his blood alcohol concentration test administered after the accident. The district court granted the motions. The State's expert, Lynn Kurtz, of the state crime lab, testified that analysis of Larson's blood sample taken three hours after the accident showed a blood alcohol concentration of 0.12 percent. Kurtz testified an individual in such a scenario would be in the elimination phase, having totally absorbed the alcohol into his or her system earlier. Moreover, Kurtz stated a person's peak alcohol level would be reached sometime within a half hour to an hour and a half after the person stopped consuming alcohol. The jury was instructed on the definition of criminal negligence: "A person acts negligently with respect to the death of a human being when an act is done with conscious disregard of the risk that death of a human occur, or when the person disregards a risk which the person should be aware that the death of a human being will occur." The jury returned verdicts of guilty on all counts. On appeal, Larson argued that the district court violated its own order by allowing the State's expert to offer an opinion that Larson had reached and passed "peak alcohol." Larson contended, among other things, that all evidence involving retrograde extrapolation was prejudicial, against the state crime lab's own policy and in direct contravention of the district court's motion in limine.

Issue:

1. Did the district court err when it admitted the testimony of the State’s blood alcohol expert?

2. Did the district court err by granting the State's motion in limine to exclude evidence of the deceased victim’s blood alcohol concentration?

3. Did the district court err by granting the State's motion in limine to exclude evidence of the erection of new highway signs at the accident scene?

4. Did the district court properly instruct the jury on the definition of criminal negligence?

5. Did the State provide sufficient evidence of impairment to support Larson's conviction for negligent homicide and driving under the influence?

6. Did the State provide sufficient evidence to support Larson's conviction for exceeding speed limit?

7. Was Larson entitled to a new trial under the doctrine of cumulative error?

Answer:

1. No; 2. No; 3. No; 4. Yes; 5. Yes; 6. Yes; 7. No.

Conclusion:

The state supreme court affirmed the judgment of the district court. The court held: 1. The district court did not abuse its discretion when it admitted testimony by the State's expert witness regarding Larson's blood alcohol. The district court correctly recognized the distinction between "elimination phase" testimony and "retrograde extrapolation" testimony, admitting the former and prohibiting the latter. Retrograde extrapolation was a method of estimating a person's blood alcohol level at a specified time by using the person's known blood alcohol content at a later time. Kurtz did not assign a definitive number to Larson's blood alcohol at the time of the accident, but instead stated his opinion Larson would have reached the peak alcohol phase earlier in the evening and been in the elimination phase at the time of the blood draw. By failing to engage in retrograde extrapolation, Kurtz did not violate state crime lab policy.

2. The district court did not abuse its discretion when it granted the State's motion in limine to exclude evidence of the deceased victim's blood alcohol concentration. The district court presumably agreed with the State that the blood alcohol concentration results and evidence of the victim's alcohol consumption were irrelevant.

3. The district court did not abuse its discretion when it granted the State's motion in limine to exclude evidence of highway signs erected at the scene following the accident. The State did not dispute, either by direct presentation of evidence or in argument, the highway at the location of the crash presented a risk to an inattentive driver. Further, Larson was permitted to fully present his theory that the frontage road in question was a dangerous highway.

4. The jury was adequately instructed on negligence and the elements of the offense charged. Under the given instructions, if the jury believed Larson's account of the accident, they could have found in his favor.

5. The State provided sufficient evidence of Larson's impairment to support Larson's conviction for negligent homicide and driving under the influence. The State presented evidence Larson drank a substantial amount of alcohol during the evening and morning hours before the accident. Further, Larson admitted to EMTs and officers at the hospital that he had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol. The State also showed that Larson drove his pickup at a high rate of speed off the shoulder of the highway, causing the pickup to roll over and eject all three passengers. The State's expert witness testified that the driving ability of anyone with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08 percent or more was impaired or diminished.

6. Based on the evidence presented to the jury, a rational trier of fact could have found that Larson had been driving in excess of the posted speed limit. The jury was presented with evidence that the nighttime speed limit for a non-interstate public highway in Montana was 65 mph. Larson's speed was estimated to be between 84 to 89 mph or 63 to 71 mph by the State and Larson's experts, respectively.

7. The doctrine of cumulative error required reversal of a conviction where a number of errors, taken together, prejudiced a defendant's right to a fair trial. However, the court found no grounds to apply the doctrine of cumulative error in Larson's case. The court found no prejudice that would warrant reversal. Further, the court found no abuse of judicial discretion in the district court's evidentiary rulings. Finally, it was held that there was sufficient evidence for the jury to convict Larson on all charges.

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