State v. Biechelle

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Darigan, J.


Before this Court is Defendant Daniel Biechele’s (“Defendant”) motion to dismiss one hundred counts of a grand jury indictment pursuant to R.I. Super. R. Crim. P. 12. Defendant faces two hundred manslaughter counts based on G.L. 1956 § 11-23-1. The first one hundred counts charge Defendant with involuntary manslaughter resulting from criminal negligence; the second one hundred counts charge Defendant with involuntary manslaughter resulting from the commission of an unlawful act (“misdemeanor manslaughter”). Defendant moves to dismiss counts the misdemeanor manslaughter counts for failure to state an offense under Rhode Island law and for failure to provide fair warning…


Defendant was the “tour manager”of “Great White,” a band that performed at The Station, a nightclub located in Warwick, Rhode Island. On February 20, 2003, the Defendant allegedly ignited pyrotechnic devices (“D.O.T. Class C” Fireworks — Classification 1.4) inside the Station as part of the band’s performance. The ignition of the pyrotechnics would constitute a misdemeanor if the Defendant was not licensed to possess, control, or use the pyrotechnics under § 11-13-1. The State alleges that the pyrotechnics started a fire inside The Station that proximately caused the deaths of one hundred people.


Section 11-23-3 requires that “[e]very person who shall commit manslaughter shall be imprisoned not exceeding thirty (30) years.” It is settled law in Rhode Island that because manslaughter is not defined within the statute, it takes the same meaning as defined in common law.

Involuntary manslaughter in Rhode Island is defined as “an unintentional homicide without malice aforethought committed either in performance of an unlawful act not amounting to a felony or in the performance of a lawful act with criminal negligence.” State v. Hallenbeck, 878 A.2d 992, 1008 (R.I. 2005); see State v. Lillibridge, 454 A.2d 237, 240 (R.I. 1982). This definition clearly creates two distinct theories of involuntary manslaughter: one based on criminal negligence theory and one based on unlawful act theory (“misdemeanor manslaughter”).


Defendant first claims that the State failed to allege the Defendant engaged in conduct that constitutes a misdemeanor under Rhode Island law. Defendant also argues § 11-13-1 does not apply to pyrotechnics. Further, Defendant contends § 11-13-1 failed to give adequate warning of the offense, in violation of due process protection. Defendant asserts that the firework misdemeanor’s thirty-day statute of limitation precludes the State from bringing a manslaughter charge after thirty-days.

Defendant contends that even if the ignition of the pyrotechnics constituted a misdemeanor under § 11-13-1, manslaughter could not be appropriately charged because the Defendant lacked the criminal scienter necessary for such a serious conviction.

Defendant avers Rhode Island case law requires the misdemeanor underlying a misdemeanor manslaughter charge to be malum in se, and contends the firework statute is malum prohibitum. Additionally, Defendant argues that the indictment requires no criminal mens rea in violation of fundamental due process guarantees and State case law.


The State asserts the clear language of the statute indicates the pyrotechnic devices used by the Defendant required a permit or prior approval under § 11-13-1 (“firework statute”). Further, the State argues that a reasonable person would know that the Defendant’s conduct was within the ambit of the firework statute. The State avers the thirty-day statute of limitation for the firework misdemeanor is irrelevant, as the State does not seek to bring charges under the firework statute. Finally, the State contends that there is an element of criminal mens rea imbedded both in the misdemeanor and in the proximate cause required between the misdemeanor and the deaths. Thus, the State asserts that the level of criminal culpability embedded in the misdemeanor manslaughter counts is sufficient to satisfy due process guaranties and is also consistent with Rhode Island case law.


The State must first prove some criminal mens rea on the part of the Defendant in the possession, control, and ignition of the pyrotechnic devises. Although the statute on its face does not require any mental culpability, a criminal statute prohibiting possession of a specified object has repeatedly been held to require both intentional control of the object and knowledge of the object’s nature. State v. Kaba, 798 A.2d 383, 392 (R.I. 2002); State v. Gilman, 110 R.I. 207, 215, 291 A.2d 425, 430 (1972). This holding has applied to many different criminal statutes. Such knowledge can be inferred from the acts, declarations, or conduct of the accused. State v. Colbert, 549 A.2d 1021, 1024 (R.I. 1988).

As the State recognized in oral argument (Hr’g Tr. 56), the rule to strictly construe verbs relating to possession in criminal statutes extends to the misdemeanor underlying the Defendant’s indictment. Essentially, in order to prove the underlying misdemeanor, the State will not only have to prove the Defendant’s possession and use of the pyrotechnics without a permit, but also must prove the Defendant intentionally controlled the pyrotechnics and knew of the characteristics of the devices. This is not to say the State will have to prove that the Defendant knew his conduct was illegal, but rather that the Defendant knew he was dealing with devices which had a combustible or explosive composition or that contained a substance prepared for the purpose of producing a visible or audible effect by combustion, explosion, deflagration, or detonation. See Section 11-13-1.


Whether the unlawful possession, control, and ignition of pyrotechnic gerbs could potentially serve as the requisite misdemeanor for a manslaughter conviction is a novel question in Rhode Island. The Court agrees with the Defendant’s suggestion that without some element of mens rea, conviction of the Defendant would be inconsistent with both Rhode Island law and State and Federal Constitutional guarantees. However, the Court does not agree that the indictment as it stands does not require any underlying criminal mens rea; further, the Court holds that the criminal culpability required to convict the Defendant is consistent with state law and constitutional protections.

The allegation of manslaughter based on the firework misdemeanor is consistent with state law and constitutional protections. “To inflict substantial punishment upon one who is morally entirely innocent, who caused injury through reasonable mistake or pure accident, would so outrage the feelings of the community as to nullify its own enforcement.” Sayre, PublicWelfare Offenses, 33 Colo. L. Rev. 55, 56 as in Morissette v.United States, 342 U.S. 246, 256 (1952). As manslaughter carries substantial punishment of up to thirty years, it would be unjust to convict the Defendant unless the Defendant had some guilty mental stateHowever, in addition to the knowledge implied in the misdemeanor, there is also criminal culpability embedded in the misdemeanor manslaughter theory of involuntary manslaughter.

In State v. McLaughlin, the Rhode Island Supreme Court articulated that proximate cause is an element of the crime of misdemeanor manslaughter621 A.2d 170 (R.I. 1993). In McLaughlin, the Court stated “[i]n order to find defendant guilty of involuntary manslaughter under the misdemeanor manslaughter theory, the state must prove two elements beyond a reasonable doubt. It must show first that a misdemeanor occurred and then that such misdemeanor was the proximate cause of the victim’s death.” Id. at 177 (emphasis added).


The requirement that the illegal conduct proximately cause the manslaughter eliminates concerns that the culpability required to convict the Defendant is too insignificant to uphold a manslaughter conviction. Logically, the Defendant’s conduct must be of the type that could proximately cause death. LaFave’s Substantive Criminal Law identifies how states have limited the use of misdemeanor manslaughter through proximate cause. Section 15.5(c) at 803-806 (2d ed. 2003).12 States which adhere to the malum in se/malum prohibitum distinction generally do not require proof of proximate cause if the misdemeanor is malum in se. Id. Those states would apply the three variations of limiting the underlying misdemeanor to malum prohibitum crimes; other states would use the variations as to all crimes. The three variations are

1) the unlawful act must proximately cause the death,

2) the unlawful excess must proximately cause the death, or

3) the unlawful act must amount to criminal negligence. Id.

The Court in McLaughlin adopted the first position, as it states the criminal conduct must proximately cause the death.

The proximate cause limitation is perfectly consistent with the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s reasoning in other criminal cases. In State v. Benoit, the defendant, while intoxicated beyond twice the legal limit, was driving in the high-speed lane. 650 A.2d 1230, 1231(R.I. 1995). A car carrying one passenger, driving in the opposite direction of the defendant, crossed the dividing line and hit the defendant. The passenger in the other car was killed, and the driver of the other car was injured. The defendant was charged by way of information with § 31-27-2.2 and § 31-27-2.6. These statutes appeared to create a strict liability standard if an intoxicated defendant was operating a vehicle and death or injury resulted from such operation. Plainly, the operation of the vehicle was a “but for” cause of the accident; without the defendant’s presence on the highway, no accident would have occurred. However, the Court held proof that the manner of operation proximately caused the death was necessary. Id. at 1234. In terms of proximate cause, the simple fact that the defendant was intoxicated while driving did not make it foreseeable that a car traveling at a high rate of speed would cross the center divider and strike the defendant’s car. Because the State admitted that it could not prove the defendant’s truck was anywhere but in its lane and only alleged the mere presence of the car on the highway, the Court dismissed the countsBenoit, 650 A.2d at 1234. The Court rejected the State’s theory of strict liability and embraced the limitation that proximate cause must be shown between the manner of operation and not just the operation itselfId. at 1233-1234. The Court also clarified that no showing of negligence or recklessness was necessary to convict the defendant under the two statutes. Id. at 1233. Sensibly, a harmless misdemeanor could not serve as the proximate cause of a death because death is not the natural consequence of harmless action.


With respect to the proximate cause inquiry, State v. Benoit is also significant because of the Court’s focus on the facts of the case, not the general category of the crime. Drunk driving is a crime that the court blatantly (descaradamente) considered to be conduct that proximately causes death. (“We note that the amount of human carnage resulting from alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents is horrific.”) However, the Court did not consider whether the category in which the conduct was classified could proximately cause the crime, but rather looked to see if defendant’s specific actions proximately caused the crime.

The Defendant’s contention that malum prohibitum crimes should be categorically excluded without inquiry into the specific facts would be contradictory to previous reasoning of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. The inquiry of this Court should not be whether a firework misdemeanor can underlie a misdemeanor manslaughter conviction, but whether the Defendant’s alleged unlawful possession, control, and ignition of the pyrotechnics, in light of the specific circumstances and facts, could create a foreseeable risk of death. Although the Defendant had a duty under the statute to refrain from possession, control, and ignition of pyrotechnics without a permit, failing to do so does not automatically mean his conduct made death foreseeable. The alleged facts indicate that conditions in The Station nightclub might have been unusually dangerous, possibly constituting an intervening cause of death. Depending on the facts and circumstances, the effect of the pyrotechnics may not have been foreseeable. However, proximate cause and knowledge are facts for the jury to decide and are not appropriate for this Court to address in a motion to dismiss counts in an indictment.


This Court believes that the indictment sufficiently meets the modern day requirements of misdemeanor manslaughter articulated in McLaughlinBecause McLaughlin and other recent Rhode Island criminal law cases fail to adhere to the malum inse/malum prohibitum distinction, this Court does not believe it is necessary or appropriate to add any additional requirements to the crime of misdemeanor manslaughter. Proximate cause implicates a culpable mental state; a separate element for criminal culpability is not required.

Classification of the alleged firework misdemeanor as malum in se or malum prohibitum is unnecessary. If the State can prove the Defendant disregarded the statutory requirements for possession and use of the pyrotechnic devices, and that disregard caused a foreseeable risk of death to hundreds of people, the Defendant’s conduct would not be blameless. However, if the facts show that such disregard did not exist or did not create a foreseeable risk of death, then the Defendant could not be convicted of manslaughter.

This Court declines to dismiss the misdemeanor manslaughter counts on their face by promulgating a new judicial rule creating categorical limitations on the type of misdemeanor the State could use as the basis of a manslaughter charge. As this issue has not been presented to the Supreme Court of Rhode Island, it would be their prerogative to use these facts to further limit misdemeanor manslaughter if the court was so inclined. This Court notes that misdemeanor manslaughter has fallen into disfavor on a national level, and has been criticized as being harsh and archaic. However, it remains a viable cause of action in this jurisdiction. The Court leaves any further review and or limitation to the Supreme Court of Rhode Island.

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