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State v. Steelman

Court of Criminal Appeals of Tennessee, Knoxville

October 30, 2017

STATE OF TENNESSEE
v.
STEVEN DARE STEELMAN, JR.

          Assigned on Briefs July 25, 2017

         Appeal from the Criminal Court for Knox County No. 105752 Steven W. Sword, Judge

         The Defendant, Steven Dare Steelman, Jr., was convicted by a Knox County Criminal Court jury of aggravated vehicular homicide, vehicular homicide by intoxication, vehicular homicide by reckless conduct, vehicular assault, reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon, third offense driving under the influence (DUI) per se, third offense DUI, driving on a revoked license after two prior DUI convictions, and failure to provide proof of financial responsibility. See T.C.A. §§ 39-13-218 (2014) (aggravated vehicular homicide), 39-13-213 (2014) (amended 2015) (vehicular homicide by intoxication or vehicular homicide by reckless conduct), 39-13-106 (2014) (amended 2015) (vehicular assault), 39-13-103 (Supp. 2014) (amended 2015) (reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon), 55-10-401 (2012) (amended 2013, 2015) (third offense DUI per se), 55-10-401 (2012) (amended 2013, 2015) (third offense DUI), 55-50-504 (2012) (amended 2016) (driving on a revoked license after two prior DUI convictions), 55-12-139 (Supp. 2014) (amended 2015) (failure to provide proof of financial responsibility). The trial court merged the vehicular homicide by intoxication and vehicular homicide by reckless conduct convictions with the aggravated vehicular homicide conviction. The court merged the third offense DUI conviction with the third offense DUI per se conviction. The court sentenced the Defendant to an effective thirty-two years' confinement. On appeal, the Defendant contends that (1) the evidence is insufficient to support his convictions for aggravated vehicular homicide and vehicular assault, (2) the trial court should have merged the reckless endangerment with a deadly weapon and vehicular assault convictions, and (3) the trial court erred during sentencing. Although we affirm the Defendant's convictions, we remand the case to the trial court for the entry of corrected judgments reflecting the merger of the third offense DUI per se conviction with the vehicular assault conviction.

         Tenn. R. App. P. 3 Appeal as of Right; Judgments Affirmed in Part; Case Remanded for Entry of Corrected Judgments

          J. Liddell Kirk (on appeal) Keith Lieberman (at trial), Knoxville, Tennessee, for the appellant, Steven Dare Steelman, Jr.

          Herbert H. Slatery III, Attorney General and Reporter; Courtney N. Orr, Assistant Attorney General; Charme Allen, District Attorney General; and Joe Welker and Gary Eshbaugh, Assistant District Attorneys General, for the appellee, State of Tennessee.

          Robert H. Montgomery, Jr., J., delivered the opinion of the court, in which Alan E. Glenn and J. Ross Dyer, JJ., joined.

          OPINION

          ROBERT H. MONTGOMERY, JR., JUDGE.

         This appeal arises from a car crash that occurred around noon on November 23, 2014, in which the Defendant's son was killed. Knox County Sheriff's Office (KCSO) Detective Steven Sanders testified that he responded to the crash and that he observed a car with front-end and passenger-side damage. Detective Sanders saw debris along the side of the road, around a tree, and near a telephone pole. Detective Sanders stated that the Defendant was the driver of the car and that two children were passengers. Detective Sanders said that the Defendant was not injured. Detective Sanders stated that one of the children was alert but that the other child was nonresponsive and died within one hour. On cross-examination, Detective Sanders testified that the Defendant told him that he swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle, which caused the crash.

         Nathan Lawson, the Defendant's nephew, testified that he was age twelve at the time of trial and that he and his cousin, Steven Hounschell, [1] were in a car driven by the Defendant when it crashed. Mr. Lawson said that he and Mr. Hounschell got into the car with the Defendant to go to the grocery store. Mr. Lawson stated that he was sitting in the backseat behind the front passenger seat. Mr. Lawson said that he felt a bump and heard tires spinning and that the car "crashed." Mr. Lawson stated that he did not see another vehicle.

         Mr. Lawson testified that after the crash, the Defendant told him to unbuckle his seatbelt and get out of the car. Mr. Lawson said that he and the Defendant were "trying to help [Mr. Hounschell breathe] again." Mr. Lawson stated that he hurt his back in the crash and that the Defendant told him to lie on the ground. Mr. Lawson said that he was taken to the hospital, that he had three spinal fractures, and that he stayed in the hospital for one day. Mr. Lawson stated that he wore a neck brace for approximately one to two months and that doctors told him he would have back pain for the remainder of his life. Mr. Lawson stated that sometimes he had a "sharp pain going down [his] spine." Mr. Lawson said that Mr. Hounschell was age nine or ten when the crash occurred.

         On cross-examination, Mr. Lawson testified that he did not see the Defendant drink alcohol before driving and that the Defendant behaved normally. Mr. Lawson did not recall seeing other vehicles on the road.

         KCSO Officer Christopher Lougheed testified that he went to the crash site and observed one child screaming and another child nonresponsive. Officer Lougheed said that he assisted Officer Sanders with the nonresponsive child until paramedics arrived. Officer Lougheed said that he smelled alcohol on the Defendant's breath and that he transported the Defendant to the hospital to obtain a blood sample.

         KCSO Officer Philip Elkins testified that he responded to the crash site, that the Defendant told Officer Elkins he had drunk one-half quart of moonshine the night before the crash, and that Officer Elkins smelled alcohol on the Defendant's breath. Officer Elkins said that he asked the Defendant for his phone number and that the Defendant had a difficult time recalling the number. Officer Elkins stated that the Defendant's speech was slurred and that the Defendant had watery and bloodshot eyes. Officer Elkins said that he determined the Defendant's driver's license had been revoked, and a copy of the Defendant's driving record showing the revoked status was received as an exhibit. Officer Elkins stated that he asked the Defendant to perform a series of field sobriety tests and that the Defendant was unable to perform the tests as instructed. Officer Elkins said that the Defendant consented to provide a blood sample.

         The death certificate and autopsy report for Mr. Hounschell were received as exhibits. Officer Elkins read a portion of the report into the record. The report reflected that Mr. Hounschell was in the front passenger seat at the time of the crash, that the car had struck a telephone pole and a tree, that Mr. Hounschell was pronounced dead shortly after arriving at the hospital, and that the cause of death was blunt force trauma.

         Audio recordings of jail telephone calls between the Defendant and an unidentified female were received as exhibits and were played for the jury. In the recordings, the Defendant admitted that he had an alcohol problem and that he drank alcohol the night before the crash, but he said he was not intoxicated at the time of the crash. The Defendant stated that his blood should have only shown the presence of Suboxone and marijuana.

         On cross-examination, Officer Elkins testified that the Defendant told him an oncoming vehicle caused him to swerve off of the road. Officer Elkins acknowledged that field sobriety tests were not 100% accurate and that it was possible trauma from the crash affected the Defendant's ability to follow instructions during the tests. Officer Elkins stated that the tests were administered on flat ground and that he provided the Defendant with an option to perform the tests without shoes, but the Defendant declined and wore his boots. Officer Elkins said that wearing boots may have affected the Defendant's performance. Officer Elkins stated that the Defendant's speech was slurred but admitted that his police report did not note it. Officer Elkins testified that the Defendant reported last drinking alcohol at 1:00 a.m. on the morning of the crash.

         On redirect examination, Officer Elkins testified that the Defendant told him that he was not injured during the crash. Officer Elkins stated that the Defendant was "unfit to operate the vehicle safely."

         KCSO Officer Lee Strzelecki testified that he escorted the Defendant to the phlebotomy lab for extraction of the blood sample. Officer Strzelecki stated that the Defendant told him that he swerved to avoid an oncoming vehicle and that he lost control. Officer Strzelecki said that the Defendant reported smoking marijuana and drinking moonshine the night before the crash. Officer Strzelecki stated that the Defendant had slurred speech, smelled of alcohol, had bloodshot eyes, and appeared to be "impaired."

         Officer Strzelecki testified that he also inspected the Defendant's car after the crash. Officer Strzelecki did not find any mechanical issues that would have caused the crash.

         On cross-examination, Officer Strzelecki testified that the Defendant had a minor head wound and that a nurse cleaned dried blood from the wound. Officer Strzelecki testified that a "wheel stud" had fallen off of a brake drum on the Defendant's car but said that it would not have affected the car's performance. Officer Strzelecki stated that the rear tires were worn and needed replacing but that did not cause the crash.

         Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI) Special Agent Michael Tiller testified that he analyzed the Defendant's blood sample and that the results revealed the Defendant's blood alcohol concentration (BAC) was 0.144%. Agent Tiller said that an average person with a BAC of 0.14% would suffer from delayed reaction times, motor coordination loss, difficulty with vision, slurred speech, difficulty walking, memory loss, and difficulty following directions. Agent Tiller stated that an average person with a BAC of 0.14% would have impaired judgment but acknowledged that it was possible to build a tolerance to alcohol if consumed often.

         TBI Special Agent Melanie Carlisle testified that she performed further analysis on the Defendant's blood sample to determine whether narcotics were present. Agent Carlisle stated that the sample was positive for marijuana metabolites, which were present when a body metabolized marijuana. On cross-examination, Agent Carlisle testified that marijuana metabolites could be present up to one week after use.

         KCSO Officer Timothy Belcher, a crash reconstructionist expert, testified that based on his investigation, the Defendant was driving at a "significantly greater" speed than thirty-nine miles per hour and that the speed limit was forty miles per hour. Officer Belcher said that the road was wet but that hydroplaning did not occur because no standing water was present on the road. He stated that, in his opinion, based on environmental conditions, the Defendant's state of mind, and the Defendant's level of impairment, the Defendant failed to maintain control of the car, which caused the crash.

         On cross-examination, Officer Belcher testified that his summary of the investigation stated the primary cause of the crash was the Defendant's reckless operation, not intoxication. Officer Belcher said that the tire marks at the scene did not support the Defendant's claim that the Defendant swerved to miss an oncoming vehicle. On redirect examination, Officer Belcher testified that the Defendant was impaired and was unable to maintain control of the car, causing the crash.

         Teresa Allison testified for the defense that the Defendant, who was her son-in-law, lived in her home. Ms. Allison said that she did not see the Defendant drink alcohol or smoke marijuana on the morning of the crash. Ms. Allison said that she had previously seen the Defendant too intoxicated to drive but that he did not appear intoxicated or have slurred speech that morning. Ms. Allison stated that she went to the crash scene with her daughter, who was the Defendant's wife, and observed Mr. Hounschell and Mr. Lawson receiving medical treatment. Ms. Allison stated that she later observed the Defendant performing field sobriety tests and that he "looked fine."

         On cross-examination, Ms. Allison testified that she was unaware that the Defendant's driver's license had been revoked. Ms. Allison stated that the ...


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