Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: Defendant can be Criminally Liable for Drunkenly Walking on Train Tracks with Child

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court today ruled there was probable cause to arrest a man who drunkenly stumbled along a set of train tracks while holding onto his 11-year-old son.  The name of the case is Commonwealth v. Coggeshall.

In the middle of the afternoon on August 19, 2013, two Halifax cops received word that two people were walking on a set of train tracks in town.  They responded to the location and found the defendant and his son.  The defendant was unsteady on his feet and was holding his son’s hand for balance.  While the son tried to keep the defendant on his feet, the defendant fell onto his back and landed between the tracks.  It was apparent to the officers that the defendant was drunk.  The defendant told the police he always walked on the tracks.  He also admitted to having had a few beers and said he was “fucked up.”  The officers assisted the defendant and his sons off the tracks and observed that the defendant was unable to walk on his own.  The defendant was charged with reckless endangerment of a child.  A district court judge allowed the defendant’s motion to dismiss, ruling that he was not subjectively aware of the substantial risk of bodily harm to which he was exposing his child.  The Commonwealth appealed and the Supreme Judicial Court reversed.

The Court first reviewed the elements of the reckless endangerment statute.  In order to win a conviction, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant recklessly or wantonly participated in conduct creating a substantial risk (or failed to reasonably alleviate a risk where he had a duty to act) of serious bodily injury to a child under the age of 18.  In this case, there was no dispute that the child in question was under 18.  The two issues for the SJC were: (1) did the defendant’s conduct rise to the level of creating a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to his son; and (2) was the defendant required to subjectively understand the risk and, if so, did the evidence in this case establish the defendant’s requisite intent?

The Court said “substantial risk” means a good deal more than a possibility and is understood to be a “real or strong possibility.”  The Court had little trouble concluding the defendant’s actions in this case constituted a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to his son.  The Court pointed out that simply walking on the railroad tracks constituted a crime.  Additionally, railroad tracks are inherently a place of danger in the best circumstances, which did not exist here.  The defendant was so drunk that he fell down in the middle of the tracks.  The Court said the defendant’s son certainly would have tried to drag the defendant to safety if a train had approached, thereby endangering his own safety.  Therefore, the defendant clearly caused a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to his son.

The second question for the Court was whether the statute’s required state of mind is subjective (the defendant has to personally recognize the risk) or objective (a reasonable person in the defendant’s position would recognize the risk).  The Court ultimately concluded the law requires the Commonwealth to prove the defendant subjectively recognizes the risk he is creating.  In this case, the Commonwealth did so (at least under a probable cause standard) by presenting evidence that the defendant knew where he was walking and admitting to the level of his sobriety.

The case will now return to the district court, where the defendant can either plead out the case or elect to have a trial.  Today’s SJC decision has no bearing on whether the Commonwealth will be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt (which is a much higher standard than probable cause) that the defendant broke the law.