DC Court of Appeals: Multi-car collision merits multiple convictions

In a split opinion today, the DC Court of Appeals rules that a criminal defendant can be charged with multiple counts of destruction of property stemming from a multi-car collision.

Judge King, writing for the court, held that DC’s destruction of property statute, § 22-303, was meant to protect individual property interests; and so when multiple cars were damaged as a result of defendant’s recklessly running a red light (while fleeing police), the defendant could be charged with damaging each individual car. These offenses did not merge for double jeopardy purposes. Destruction of property has, in recent years, been interpreted as a crime against a person in the domestic violence context; this case seems to extend that interpretation for the first time into the double jeopardy merger context.

"Multi-car Pileup" by flickr user stevenharris
Pile up the cars, pile up the charges.

The court also implied that it was somehow important that the collisions did not happen simultaneously, but rather happened in quick succession. This distinguished the case from prior cases, which held that a defendant could not be prosecuted for two crimes when defendant’s own (stolen) car was damaged in a collision with another car. If there are two damaged cars but only one (obviously simultaneous) collision, the property damage crimes merge.

Judge Easterly dissented from this portion of the court’s ruling. In her view, simultaneity should be irrelevant if, as the court held, the offense is actually intended to protect individual property interests. More importantly, she wrote that the court was wrong to interpret DC’s destruction of property statute as one protecting individual interests for merger purposes. The collisions were one big pileup resulting from one criminal act — with respect to the property damage, in her view, the offenses should have merged.

The court declined to adopt this reasoning, and let all the convictions stand.

Close Menu