COA reverses reckless homicide conviction after distracted driving evidence wrongly excluded

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The Court of Appeals of Indiana has overturned a man’s felony reckless homicide conviction, finding the trial court erred in excluding evidence that the victim was using her phone at the time of the fatal vehicle crash.

Jaspreet Singh was driving on U.S. Highway 35 South in a semitractor-trailer when he attempted to turn left on the Anoka Exchange. Singh overshot the intersection, turned on his hazard lights and began to reverse.

Moments later, an SUV slammed into the back of the corner of Singh’s truck, spun around and then stopped. The only occupant of the SUV, Jamie Pay, died upon impact.

Pay had been driving “approximately 73 to 75 miles an hour” and made no hard movement away from the truck before the crash. The SUV’s black box revealed Pay never tried to brake, and her seatbelt wasn’t latched.

Singh called 911 while another driver got out of his vehicle and looked for any bodies that could have been thrown from the SUV, eventually discovering Pay. The driver then approached Singh, who handed off the phone because he spoke limited English.

Cass County law enforcement interviewed Singh and took him to and from the hospital for chemical testing. The results showed both he and Pay were negative for intoxicants.

Further investigation by the Indiana State Police digital forensic examiner showed Pay was using Snapchat during the time of the crash.

A little over two weeks after the crash, the state charged Singh with Level 5 felony reckless homicide.

A two-day jury trial was held, with Punjabi interpreters appointed for Singh.

The state and Singh’s counsel debated whether the defense should introduce the evidence that Pay was reading and composing messages on Snapchat to a friend prior to the crash. The court excluded both the proposed evidence as well as a distracted driving line of questioning.

The jury found Singh guilty as charged.

At the sentencing hearing, while the trial judge acknowledged Singh’s law-abiding life and lack of criminal history, she also noted his lack of expression of remorse. Thus, the trial court sentenced Singh to six years in the Department of Correction, 365 days of which could be served on community corrections if he became eligible, and suspended his driver’s license for five years.

In Jaspreet Singh v. State of Indiana, 22A-CR-1316, Singh appealed his conviction and sentence, raising evidentiary, instructional and sufficiency issues.

Reversing in Singh’s favor, the COA disagreed with the state’s argument in favor of excluding the Snapchat evidence. The state had argued the evidence would be confusing for the jury and would be highly prejudicial negative character evidence.

“Regardless of the exact content or subject matter of the Snapchat message, a reasonable jury could infer that sending a photo or video via Snapchat might consume more attention than a standard text that might feasibly be done hands-free,” Judge Terry Crone wrote.

“… Reckless-homicide-via-vehicle cases are incredibly fact-sensitive,” Crone wrote. “Here, without the introduction of the Snapchat evidence or the evidence about distracted driving, the jury did not have the full picture of this tragic situation.

“… Finding that the excluded evidence was indeed relevant, we turn to the Evidence Rule 403 balancing test,” the judge continued. “We do not agree with the State’s contention that the Snapchat evidence constitutes the type of prior, uncharged bad acts that the rule is designed to guard against.”

The appellate court thus reversed both Singh’s conviction and sentence, remanding the case on the evidentiary issues.

“On remand, we encourage the careful drafting of instructions to alleviate any potential for prejudice or confusion that might arise depending upon what evidence the State and the defense present,” Crone wrote. “Relatedly, we are not rendering an opinion regarding Singh’s proposed intervening cause instruction because the propriety of such an instruction will likewise depend upon what specific evidence is put forth on remand. Our decision obviates the need for us to address either the sufficiency or the sentencing challenges.”

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