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04/26/96 PEOPLE STATE ILLINOIS v. JASON DIGIROLAMO

April 26, 1996

THE PEOPLE OF THE STATE OF ILLINOIS, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
JASON DIGIROLAMO, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the Circuit Court of Madison County. Nos. 93-CF-1028, 93-CF-1030. Hon. Phillip J. Kardis, Judge, presiding.

As Corrected April 29, 1996.

The Honorable Justice Kuehn delivered the opinion of the court: Maag and Chapman, JJ., concur.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Kuehn

The Honorable Justice KUEHN delivered the opinion of the court:

Following a jury trial in the circuit court of Madison County, defendant, Jason Digirolamo, was found guilty of leaving the scene of an accident involving death (625 ILCS 5/11-401 (West 1992)) and of obstructing justice (720 ILCS 5/31-4(a) (West 1992)). The defendant was sentenced to a term of 30 months' probation. He appeals.

The facts of the case are steeped with tragedy. William Pranaitis enjoyed the serenity that accompanies the start of each new day. He routinely took long early morning walks. On Easter morning, April 11, 1993, before the break of dawn, Mr. Pranaitis visited his wife at her bedside. He wanted her to know that he was going for his morning walk. It was the last conversation of a marriage that endured for almost 50 years. A few hours later, Mr. Pranaitis was found dead on the side of Lebanon Road in Collinsville, the victim of a hit-and-run accident.

That same morning, the defendant, Jason Digirolamo, left friends in Collinsville with whom he had shared the evening, and he headed home to Lebanon. The defendant drove east on a narrow country road as the hour approached 4 a.m. In the predawn darkness, the defendant's car hit Mr. Pranaitis from behind. The force of the impact thrust the victim headlong into the right corner of the windshield. Mr. Pranaitis never walked again. He died where he came to rest, in a grassy area adjacent to Lebanon Road, face down in the early morning dew.

The defendant was charged with leaving the scene and failing to report the accident that killed Mr. Pranaitis. He was also twice charged with obstructing the prosecution of such offense. He was accused of destroying hair samples and destroying the windshield of his car. Since the windshield was recovered intact, the destruction charge was based upon the theory that the windshield was rendered useless as evidence by its removal from its windshield frame. The jury rendered guilty verdicts on two counts, failure to report an accident involving death and obstruction of justice. The jury acquitted the defendant of the charge of destroying hair samples. The defendant appeals.

The defense postured two theories of innocence regarding the accident, one which the jury rejected and one which the jury did not consider.

The defense first theorized that the defendant was blamed with another driver's conduct. The defense advanced the proposition that the defendant did not hit Mr. Pranaitis. Instead, the defense maintained that there were two accidents occurring at approximately the same time in the same remote area of Lebanon Road. This rare circumstance led the investigation to focus on the defendant when, in fact, the hit-and-run fatality was committed by another driver. The jury rejected this theory.

The second theory of innocence flowed from the defendant's persistent claim that he did not see, and therefore did not know, what he hit that morning. The defendant asserted that, even if he hit Mr. Pranaitis, he left the scene of the accident without the requisite mental state that triggers a driver's statutory duties. The defendant argued that the statutory obligations that attach to a driver involved in an accident, and the criminal penalties that flow from the failure to honor them, require the knowledge that another person is involved in the accident. This theory was not considered by the jury.

According to the defendant, his journey home began shortly after 3:30 a.m. He took a back route home that called for the use of Lebanon Road. As he traveled the poorly lit country road, in a sparsely populated area, the music on the radio was interrupted by a loud bang and the right side of his windshield shattered. He slowed to a stop, looked back into the darkness, but saw nothing. He drove on not knowing what hit his windshield. The defendant drove to a friend's apartment in Lebanon. The collision upset him and he discussed it with several people at the apartment. He speculated that he may have hit an animal or even a person. He pondered the possibility that something was thrown at him. The defendant knew he had just been in a collision that damaged his car. His postaccident comments depicted ignorance, however, of what actually caused the damage. He did not report the accident to the police.

On April 21, 1993, two Collinsville detectives questioned the defendant. He told detectives that he was coming home from Collinsville early Easter morning, traveling eastbound on Lebanon Road. The defendant explained that he was leaning over adjusting the dial of his radio when he was startled by the sound of something hitting his car. He noticed the shattered windshield but did not see what caused it to shatter.

The detectives testified at trial that the defendant initially denied having stopped his car. Later in the interrogation, however, he claimed that he stopped, exited the car, and inspected the area. The defendant disputed the detectives' recall of his pretrial statements. He testified that he told the detectives that he stopped and looked around, that it was dark, and that he was frightened. He told them that he left the scene because he did not see anything. He reaffirmed in his testimony that he slowed to a stop, looked back to see what he hit, saw nothing, and drove off without knowledge of what impacted his windshield.

The defendant raises several issues on appeal.

First, the defendant challenges his conviction for failure to report an accident involving personal injury or death on the basis that the State failed to allege and prove the defendant's knowledge that a person had been injured or killed in the accident. The defendant urges that the asserted failure was fatal to the prosecution and requires reversal. We disagree.

The defendant was clearly apprised of the charge. He was on notice that he was charged with "knowingly' leaving the scene of an accident resulting in Mr. Pranaitis's death. The charge itself was not flawed. Moreover, the State was under no obligation to allege or prove that the defendant knew that Mr. Pranaitis was injured or dead when he left the scene. People v. Nunn, 77 Ill. 2d 243, 252, 396 N.E.2d 27, 31, 32 Ill. Dec. 914 (1979).

Both the defendant and the State, throughout this litigation, insist upon framing the scienter issue in terms of a defendant's knowledge of the accident victim's physical condition. The parties misconstrue that part of the Nunn decision that absolves the State from proving that a defendant knows that personal injury or death resulted from the accident. The parties assume that because the State does not have to prove that a defendant knows he injured a person, the State does not have to prove that a defendant knows he struck a person.

Although we reject the defendant's claim that the prosecution was fatally flawed by defective pleading and proof, the trial proceeded upon a basic misunderstanding of the essence of the offense. The crime charged required the State to prove more than the defendant's knowledge that an accident had occurred. It required proof that the defendant knew that an accident involving another person had occurred. This misunderstanding resulted in a trial tainted by an improper test of the defendant's criminal state of mind. Thus, the result requires a reversal and a new trial.

The law requires that serious criminal conduct be accompanied by mens rea, knowledge of guilt. Absolute liability, crime and punishment of an act even if innocently committed, can be imposed, but only with express statutory authorization. See People v. Brown, 98 Ill. 2d 374, 376, 457 N.E.2d 6, 7, 75 Ill. Dec. 216 (1983); Nunn, 77 Ill. 2d at 249-50, 396 N.E.2d at 30.

Conduct is outlawed for better purpose than merely branding unknowing or innocent actors felons. Conduct is outlawed to prevent unacceptable behavior and promote lawful conduct. Therefore, criminal laws ...


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