Man who parked car on I-94 must face OWI causing death charge

August 31, 2016

Criminal charges against a man who prosecutors say was drunk and parked his car in an interstate lane in the early morning hours, leading to the death of truck driver, will move forward after the Indiana Court of Appeals upheld the denial of the driver’s motions to dismiss and suppress evidence.

According to the court record, Howard Gutenstein was driving his Audi on I-94 in LaPorte County when truck driver George Leeth saw Gutenstein’s car making unsafe lane movements. Leeth called 911 and followed Gutenstein. Eventually, he slowed his car and parked it in the right lane. Leeth stopped behind him and activated his hazard lights. Gutenstein was out of his car in a grassy ditch area when the accident occurred. Truck drive Steven Lunn struck the rear of Leeth’s semi and died from his injuries.

Indiana State trooper Rogelio Escutia, who was a new officer and on his first week of solo patrol, first responded to the scene and believed Gutenstein may be intoxicated based on his nonchalant attitude toward the severe accident, bloodshot eyes and smelling of alcohol.

Escutia placed Gutenstein in his car, advised him of his rights and told him that if he didn’t consent to an alcohol test, he could lose his driver’s license. Gutenstein consented, had his Miranda rights read to him again at the hospital and had his blood drawn. But Gutenstein didn’t sign the consent form, the trooper did, believing that his signature was required. His BAC was 0.13.

The state charged Gutenstein with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated causing death as a Class C felony, reckless homicide as a Class C felony, and operating a vehicle while intoxicated as a Class A misdemeanor. Gutenstein filed a motion to dismiss and then a motion to suppress his BAC and blood test.

An issue for prosecutors and the trial court was whether Gutenstein could face the OWI while causing death charge because he wasn’t driving his car at the time of the accident. The trial court denied Gutenstein’s motions.

On interlocutory appeal, he raised several claims, including that the trial court erroneously applied the law as it relates to causation for his felony charges and there’s not support that his conduct was the proximate cause of the collision. He was not driving at the time of the accident and his car wasn’t even involved in the accident.

“Even if Gutenstein was not in his vehicle at the moment when Lunn’s semi struck Leeth’s semi, we cannot say that this fact standing alone means, as a matter of law, that he was not ‘operating’ the vehicle for purposes of the statute,” Judge Elaine Brown wrote. She pointed to other courts that have held that a person who uses a motor vehicle and places that vehicle in a position posing a significant risk of causing a collision constitutes operating a vehicle.

As for the motion to suppress, they found he voluntarily consented to the chemical test and never objected to the blood draw as it was happening. There was no violation of his rights under the Fourth Amendment or Article 1, Section 11 of the Indiana Constitution.

The case is Howard B. Gutenstein v. State of Indiana, 46A04-1511-CR-1892 .



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