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Hegele v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Fourth District

June 26, 2019

BRANDON S. HEGELE, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee.

         Not final until disposition of timely filed motion for rehearing.

          Appeal from the Circuit Court for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, Palm Beach County; Samantha Schosberg Feuer, Judge; L.T. Case No. 502016CF007976AMB.

          Steven H. Malone of Steven H. Malone, P.A., West Palm Beach, for appellant.

          Ashley B. Moody, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Luke R. Napodano, Assistant Attorney General, West Palm Beach, for appellee.

          Forst, J.

         Appellant Brandon Hegele, formerly a deputy sheriff with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, appeals from his conviction for reckless driving causing serious bodily injury to another. Hegele raises several issues on appeal, but we write to address only his argument that the trial court improperly instructed the jury that law enforcement officers are not relieved from the duty to drive with "due regard" for the safety of all persons. On that argument and all other arguments raised, we affirm.

         Background

         Hegele was on duty at the time of the crash in a marked patrol car. In response to an earlier "be on the lookout" (BOLO) alert, he was looking for a vehicle suspected of involvement in a felony incident in another jurisdiction. At the time of the collision, Hegele was traveling over 100 miles per hour[1]-more than double the posted speed limit-with no lights or siren, in the middle of the day, on a major roadway (Southern Boulevard in Palm Beach County), after his supervisors had given orders to "hang back" and "break it off." As a result of the accident, which was captured on Hegele's dashboard camera, the driver of the other car, Harry Deshommes, suffered serious injuries.

         Based on this incident, the State charged Hegele with reckless driving causing serious bodily injury. The case went to trial. Hegele's defense was that Mr. Deshommes was a distracted driver and caused the accident by entering Hegele's lane of travel without signaling. Defense counsel also maintained in opening statements that, at the time of the accident, "Deputy Sheriff Brandon Hegele was doing his job . . . ." He "was one of a group of deputies who was out looking for a car full of criminals . . . who had committed felonies in Palm Beach County." The defense continued: "And in doing his job, now Brandon Hegele is being prosecuted for something that's not his fault."

         During the charge conference, the State argued that these opening remarks by the defense, and the unique facts of the case, necessitated a special instruction in addition to the standard instructions. Over defense objection, the State proposed a special instruction consistent with state statutes addressing the ability of emergency vehicles to breach traffic laws during emergencies. See §§ 316.072(5)(c) & 316.126(5), Fla. Stat. (2016) (both providing that, regardless of the emergency, the driver of an authorized emergency vehicle is not relieved "from the duty to drive with due regard for the safety of all persons") (emphasis added)).

         The State initially proposed to include two paragraphs, the first of which included statutory language regarding other drivers moving over for emergency vehicles. At defense counsel's request, the State quickly agreed to remove the first paragraph. With respect to the remainder of the proposed instruction, the prosecutor asserted:

[T]he State's position is that it's relevant because the defendant disregarded [the supervisors' radio commands] and continued to act as if he's going to an existing emergency and drive in a fashion as such which I think the jury should know what the law says. . . . Whether [an emergency] actually existed or not, they should be instructed on what is required of a law enforcement officer in the State of Florida. . . . [B]ecause otherwise they may say maybe he's allowed to do this. What if they go back in the jury room and think that? . . . Because their opening statement which I expect will wrap to a question is he's basically doing the right thing and pursuing a criminal[;] these bad criminals is how it was termed in opening. So my fear is that the jury is going to go back in the jury room and think well, is he allowed to drive like this? He's in a marked patrol unit. Is he allowed to drive this way? And the answer is no. And he shouldn't get a jury pardon because they're improperly instructed or don't receive enough instruction to understand what the law requires.

         The trial court agreed that a special instruction was necessary considering the unique facts of the case; however, as the transcript reflects, the court also was concerned about properly wording the instruction, so as not to impose an extra burden on the defendant. At one point, the court stated:

Well, the bottom line is that the standard instructions need to be said. The standard instructions for reckless driving, the serious bodily injury did not contemplate a situation where a police officer is on duty during that time period. So[, ] I mean you would agree that a police officer -- there might be some question in the jury's mind as to what a police officer can and cannot do and are they permitted to drive in this sort of manner, or are they not permitted to drive in this sort of manner. I think there's that question. So[, ] we have to instruct them in some way, I'm not saying by this, but in some way so this they can understand otherwise this is a very specific type of circumstance. This is not a typical reckless driving and serious bodily injury. Wouldn't you agree? Defense? No. Okay. So[, ] I think that the jury needs to know in some way. They need an understanding as to -- because what if they come back and they say well, is a police officer allowed to drive in this type of -- in a ...

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