Teaching with Bad Court Opinions

In teaching Criminal Law, I like to use one or two cases a semester where the court opinion seems to fundamentally misunderstand a legal concept that we are discussing. I think doing so accomplishes two ends: 1) it provides a clear illustration of a common mistake students make so that they can better avoid it; and 2) shows that, particularly in criminal law, there is a high need for good lawyers and judges. I was curious if anyone else teaches using opinions that are not just flawed, but almost certainly wrong. As an example, this is an excerpt from a case (Pennsylvania v. Collins, 810 A.2d 698 (Pa. Super. Ct., 2002)) I used in teaching summer starters last month about the voluntary act requirement.

The evidence at the trial established that, on March 17, 2001, Collins agreed to pick up her friend, Megan Neff, and drive to McDonald’s to purchase a milkshake for Collins’s mother. On her way to Neff’s house, Collins stopped at a mini-market, where she encountered several acquaintances. They invited her to a party in a nearby neighborhood and Collins accepted the invitation. While at the party, Collins drank something that “tasted like fruit punch.” Fifteen minutes later, she left the party and went to Neff’s residence. Collins arrived at Neff’s house and complained that she was suffering from a headache. As the two proceeded to McDonald’s, Neff observed that Collins was not engaged in conversation. Without explanation, Collins drove past the McDonald’s and straight through five or six stop signs without stopping. Neff began to yell at Collins telling her to stop the vehicle, but Collins gave no indication that she heard Neff. Collins turned the vehicle and began to swerve into oncoming traffic. Shortly thereafter, Collins applied the brake and Neff steered the car off the road. At that point, Collins appeared to lose consciousness. When the police arrived, Collins was slumped over the steering wheel of the car. As ambulance attendants took Collins out of the vehicle, she regained consciousness and began to scream and lash out at the attendants. At the hospital, Collins’s urine sample tested positive for phencyclidine or PCP.

The Commonwealth charged Collins with Driving Under the Influence of a Controlled Substance (phencyclidine or PCP) and Failure to Comply With Duties at a Stop Sign. At the conclusion of the trial, the jury found Collins guilty of driving under the influence of a controlled substance…. Collins appealed… Collins [] asserts that the trial court should have required the Commonwealth to prove that she voluntarily ingested the controlled substance. We disagree. Section 3731 states, in pertinent part:

§ 3731. Driving under influence of alcohol or controlled substance
(a) Offense defined. A person shall not drive, operate or be in actual physical control of the movement of a vehicle in any of the following circumstances:
(2) While under the influence of any controlled substance, as defined in the act of April 14, 1972 (P.L. 233, No. 64), known as The Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, to a degree which renders the person incapable of safe driving.

75 Pa.C.S. § 3731(a)(2). Therefore, in order to sustain a conviction under Section 3731(a)(2), the Commonwealth had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Collins was: (1) driving, operating or physically controlling the movement of a vehicle and (2) that while operating the vehicle, Collins was under the influence of a controlled substance to such a degree as to render her incapable of driving safely.
Collins’s arguments would require this Court to engraft an additional element–namely voluntariness–into the DUI statutory scheme. However, the statute does not make use of the terms “intentionally,” “knowingly” or “willfully.” Therefore, the Commonwealth was not required to prove that Collins’s intoxication was intentional or voluntary…. Collins also contends that the trial court’s jury instructions violated Section 301 of the Pennsylvania Crimes Code. We find this argument to be unpersuasive. Section 301 states, in pertinent part:

§ 301. Requirement of voluntary act
(a). General rule.–A person is not guilty of an offense unless his liability is based on conduct which includes a voluntary act or the omission to perform an act of which he is physically capable.
18 Pa.C.S. § 301….

Moreover, as discussed above, the statutory language found in 75 Pa.C.S. Section 3731(a)(2) omits any reference to culpability. We interpret this omission to mean that the legislature intended Driving Under the Influence to be a strict or absolute liability offense. Therefore, we conclude that the trial court’s jury instructions did not violate the voluntary act requirement of Section 301.

In my experience, students sometimes conflate mens rea and the voluntary act requirement in cases involving intoxication (rather than separating the analysis of intoxication into actus reus and mens rea). I think the Collins case can show how that conflation happens and why it is a mistake. The Collins court dismisses the universal voluntary act requirement in Pennsylvania because the court believed the statute to be strict liability. That’s a non sequitur. And so a woman who involuntarily ingested PCP was convicted for driving under the influence of the PCP that she didn’t voluntarily consume. The case also provides a nice contrast with State v. Martin which I believe most (?) Criminal Law casebooks include in the voluntary act section. I welcome any thoughts on the using the Collins case and “bad” opinions in general as teaching tools.

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3 Responses

  1. Michael Risch says:

    When you teach in IP and internet law, this is an occupational hazard. Every casebook includes key cases that professors believe the courts got totally wrong. It may be different cases for each professor, mind you, but there are plenty.

    In contracts, after every case, I asked whether the trial judge that just got reversed had skipped contracts in law school. Most of the time, the answer was no, that there was a sea change, or a different framing of facts, or whatever. But every once in a while, the trial court got it wrong – and we discuss those cases as well.

  2. Howard Wasserman says:

    Isn’t this almost always a part of teaching appellate opinions that include dissents–*someone* got it wrong?

  3. Corey Yung says:

    Hi Howard,

    When I teach Criminal Procedure or Federal Courts, I definitely take issue with the statements and findings of several Justices and judges as I expect every professor does. Here, I was trying to focus on something more fundamental. In Collins, I think the court completely misunderstands the voluntary act requirement. In other words, they are misapplying a doctrine that 1L’s learn in the 2nd or 3rd week of Criminal Law. And the court’s mistake is similar to the type I have seen on exams and in class discussions. When I taught Collins, it wasn’t meant to articulate one view of the law – it was just indicative of a mistaken understanding. I’m not sure how common it is to use cases like that (mistaken outliers) as teaching tools. It might be a product of Criminal Law in particular where most of the cases taught are chosen as good illustrations and not as embodying a general rule of law. FWIW, students didn’t make the same error as the Collins court on their exam which had a tricky voluntariness issue.