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Curry v. State

Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas

October 30, 2019

STEVEN CURRY, Appellant
v.
THE STATE OF TEXAS

          ON APPELLANT'S PETITION FOR DISCRETIONARY REVIEW FROM THE FIRST COURT OF APPEALS HARRIS COUNTY

          Court in which Keller, P.J., Keasler, Richardson, Yeary, Newell, Walker, and Slaughter JJ., joined. Yeary, J., filed a concurring opinion. Keel, J., filed a dissenting opinion.

          OPINION

          Hervey, J.

         Appellant, Steven Curry, was convicted of failure to stop and render aid after he hit a bicyclist, John Ambrose, who later died from his wounds. The jury sentenced Curry to six years' imprisonment. It did not fine him. On appeal, Curry argued that the evidence was legally insufficient and that he was entitled to a mistake-of-fact jury instruction. The court of appeals overruled Curry's points of error and affirmed his conviction. Curry v. State, 569 S.W.3d 163 (Tex. App.-Houston [1st Dist.] 2018). Curry subsequently filed a petition for discretionary review asking us to examine the decision of the court of appeals, which we granted.

         We agree with the court of appeals that the evidence is legally sufficient to support Curry's conviction for failure to stop and render aid, but we disagree with its conclusion that he was not entitled to a mistake-of-fact instruction. We will remand the cause for the court of appeals to assess whether Appellant was harmed.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         We agree with the court of appeals's detailed recitation of the facts, so we quote it here:

This case arises from a fatal hit-and-run accident [that took place on March 20, 2015]. []Curry was indicted for the felony offense of failure to stop and render aid to bicyclist John Ambrose. See Tex. Transp. Code § 550.021(a), (c)(1). At trial, Curry did not dispute that he struck Ambrose with his truck and failed to stop and render aid. He conceded that Ambrose died as a result of complications arising from the medical treatment required by his injuries.
Curry, however, contended that he did not know at the time of the collision that he had struck a person who required his assistance.
J. Saldivar, an officer with the La Porte Police Department, arrived at the accident scene in response to a 911 call. When Saldivar arrived, Ambrose was unresponsive and in dire need of medical attention. Saldivar called emergency medical services personnel to the scene, who in turn summoned Life Flight to transport Ambrose to a hospital.
Ambrose had suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. He remained unresponsive, and he required a ventilator and feeding tube. After his discharge from the hospital, he was placed in a nursing home, where he later died.
Harris County Precinct 8 deputies investigated the accident due to their expertise in accident reconstruction. They concluded that a vehicle struck Ambrose from behind while he was bicycling in the northbound lane of a narrow, two-lane road. They based this conclusion on:
• the direction of the trail of debris in the road, including debris from the bicycle, which was predominantly in the northbound lane;
• the damage to the bicycle's rear tire, which was bent out of shape and had a cracked rim;
• the lack of damage to the bicycle's front wheel;
• gouges or scrapes in the road made when the front wheel of the bicycle detached as a result of the impact and its front forks hit the pavement; and
• the location of Ambrose and his bicycle after the accident.
The deputies concluded that a driver traveling in the northbound lane could have seen Ambrose because his bicycle had reflectors that were visible at night. In addition, they concluded that the driver who struck Ambrose was aware that the collision had occurred because the debris path showed that the driver had swerved.
The precinct circulated fliers seeking the public's help in identifying the driver who struck Ambrose. A citizen's tip lead deputies to Curry. The front passenger side of Curry's work truck was damaged, including its headlight assembly and the quarter panel. The headlight was broken. Police observed gouge marks on the fender beneath the broken headlight. R. Gallion, the La Porte Police Department crime scene investigator who examined the truck and processed the remaining evidence from the accident scene concluded that Curry struck Ambrose's bicycle from behind.
Curry testified that he did not think that he had been in an accident the night that he struck Ambrose. It was dark and the surrounding lighting was very poor around the accident scene. According to Curry, he did not see anything in the roadway and the passenger-side headlight suddenly burst. He "believed that somebody either threw something, or hit something, or something hit my truck, or that it was just something that had just came up off the road." He conceded that he knew there had been a collision of some sort. Curry braked but did not stop, explaining that it was dark and he feared the possibility of an "altercation with someone else."
Curry's girlfriend, Rhonda San Felipo, also testified. San Felipo and Curry were returning from dinner out at a restaurant that evening. She was following him in her own car. They were traveling between 30 and 40 miles per hour. San Felipo could see the roadway beyond Curry's truck. She did not see a bicyclist in the road. According to her, Curry's headlight shattered, his truck "jerked a little bit," and he braked. She thought "somebody threw a bottle at him" from a nearby parking lot. San Felipo did not see Ambrose after the impact.
Curry and San Felipo drove on a short distance to his home where they inspected the truck.[1] Immediately afterward, they then returned to the accident scene in San Felipo's car to determine what had happened. They slowly drove by the area but they did not stop there. San Felipo said that she saw the silhouette of a man, whom she thought might have thrown the bottle. Aside from the remains of his headlight, Curry said that he did not see any debris in the road. Nor did he see Ambrose or his bike. He conceded, however, that he would have found Ambrose and known that Ambrose needed help if he and San Felipo had stopped and looked around for a few minutes.
Curry testified that he first learned of the true nature of the accident several days afterward when San Felipo called and told him of a newscast about it. He said that even then he still was not sure that he had struck Ambrose. Curry conceded, however, that he had contacted an attorney the day before San Felipo called him about the newscast.
Clyde Rooke, an accident reconstructionist, testified as a defense expert. He opined that Ambrose was not in the roadway immediately before the accident. Rooke concluded that Ambrose, whose blood alcohol content was more than twice the legal driving limit, had pulled out onto the road just as Curry's truck passed by him. Ambrose and his bike would have come to rest elsewhere if Curry had struck him from directly behind. In his opinion, the bicycle's rear tire was too low to damage the truck's headlight. Because Curry's truck sustained so little damage, Rooke opined that a reasonable person could have believed that it struck something other than a person or another vehicle.
Rooke conceded that his testimony as to Ambrose's sudden entry onto the road was based on Curry's and San Felipo's statements, not any physical evidence. He also conceded that the physical evidence was consistent with the deputies' reconstruction of the accident. If Ambrose was already on the road when Curry approached, Rooke agreed that Curry would have been able to see Ambrose from a distance.

Id. at 165-67.

         COURT OF APPEALS

         On appeal, Curry argued that the evidence was insufficient because the State failed to prove that he was involved in an accident requiring him to stop and render aid. Id. at 165. He also argued that he was entitled to a mistake-of-fact instruction because, even if he was involved in an accident that would have required him to stop and render aid, he was reasonably mistaken in believing that he was not. Id. at 167-68. If the jury believed him, Curry contended, that reasonable belief would have negated the required mens rea that he knew that he was involved in an accident that required him to stop and render aid. Id. at 168.

         a. Sufficiency of the Evidence

         The first thing that the court of appeals had to do was construe the word "accident." Because "accident" is not defined by statute and does not have a technical meaning, the court of appeals relied on a dictionary to determine its ordinary meaning. Id. at 167. According to the court, an accident "encompasses any 'unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.'" Id. (citing New Oxford American Dictionary 9 (3d ed. 2010)). Discussing our precedent, the lower court acknowledged that the State had to prove not only that an accident occurred, but also that the driver knew that he was involved in an accident, [2] but it held that the evidence was nonetheless sufficient on this point "[b]ecause [Curry] was aware that a collision of some kind had occurred . . . ." Id.

         It next turned to Curry's argument that he was not required to stop and render aid because he did not know that the accident involved a person. In finding the evidence sufficient, the court of appeals explained that, although the State used to have to prove that the driver knew that a person was involved in the accident, it no longer has to in light of amendments to the statute. Id. at 167-68. According to the court of appeals, "the revised statute dispenses with the requirement that the State must prove that the defendant knew that another person was injured in the accident. A contrary interpretation would render ...


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