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Lawskills.com Georgia Caselaw
MAXWELL v. THE STATE.
37081.
Involuntary manslaughter. Floyd Superior Court. Before Judge Hicks. January 2, 1958.
TOWNSEND, Judge.
1. Since the first special ground of the amended motion for new trial fails to set out therein any of the evidence, and fails to point out such parts thereof by reference to the page number of the brief of the evidence, one or the other of which is necessary to an understanding of the error in accordance with the amendment to Code (Ann.) 6-901 (Ga. L. 1957, pp. 224, 232), this ground presents no question for consideration by this court.
2. Where there is a conflict between what is alleged to have been charged by the court in an approved ground of an amended motion for new trial, and the approved charge itself, this court will be governed by the approved charge.
3. In contemplation of law an operator of a motor vehicle on the public highway is under the influence of intoxicating liquor when he is so affected by it as to make it less safe for him to operate a motor vehicle than it would be if he were not affected by such intoxicating liquor, and it is not error for the trial court to so charge in any case wherein this rule is applicable.
4. A crime in this State constitutes the violation of a public law. In the Uniform Traffic Control Act the General Assembly has delegated to the State Highway Board the authority to adopt a manual (Code, Ann., 68-1609) and to place on the highway traffic control devices conforming thereto (Code, Ann., 68-1610) the violation of which is penal (Code Ann., 68-9926). Specific authority is given the Highway Board to erect certain types of signs the meaning and interpretation of which are fixed by law (Code, Ann., 68-1613) and the violation of which is criminal. Authority is given for the Highway Board to mark no-passing zones. Code (Ann.) 68-1638. Pursuant to the authority delegated to the State Highway Board by the General Assembly any traffic device properly adopted in the manual and placed on the highway which is self-explanatory so that a motorist can readily tell when he is abiding by or violating such device is sufficient to form the basis for penal action in case of its violation. However, the violation of a device explained only in the manual the meaning of which is not apparent from the device itself, and which meaning has not been defined by law, cannot form a basis for criminal prosecution. A yellow line painted on the surface of a two-lane highway to the right of the center line thereof to a motorist traveling in his right-hand lane on such highway is such a device. Accordingly, the trial court erred in charging the provisions of Code (Ann.) 68-1638 providing for the authority of the Highway Board to mark no-passing zones, the only evidence thereof being the yellow line in question.
5. The trial court also erred in charging that the minimum sentence to be inflicted in case of conviction of involuntary manslaughter in the commission of an unlawful act would be two years instead of one year as provided by law.
6. The remaining special assignments of error contained in the amended motion for new trial are without merit.
The defendant Ralph Maxwell was jointly indicted with three others for murder, and was tried and convicted in the Superior Court of Floyd County of involuntary manslaughter. He filed a motion for new trial on the general grounds which was subsequently amended by the addition of 10 special grounds, and the denial of this motion is assigned as error.
2. Special grounds 5 and 6 refer to excerpts from the charge relating to the test for determining the amount of alcohol in a person's blood stream which is authorized in Code (Ann.) 68-1625. The charge as quoted in special ground 6, and approved by the trial court, is obviously error. However, the record contains the entire charge, also approved by the trial court, which accurately sets out the law relating to this subject. There is accordingly a conflict between the record and the motion for new trial to this extent. In Alston v. Grantham, 26 Ga. 374 (1) it was held: "In a motion for a new trial, if the rule nisi states the charge differently from the charge itself, as written out by the judge and sent up with the record, this court will be governed by the charge as written." We accordingly presume that the correct charge, as shown by the record, was given, rather than the incorrect charge as shown by the special ground of the amended motion for new trial.
3. Complaint is made in special ground 7 that the court charged: "if you find . . . that the defendant was . . . at the time of the operation of such automobile, under the influence of intoxicating liquors to the extent that it rendered his operation of such automobile less safe, then he would be deemed to be under the influence of intoxicating liquors." That this is a correct statement of the law see Bishop v. State, 92 Ga. App. 494 (2) (88 S. E. 2d 746) and citations. This ground is without merit.
Error is assigned in special ground 8 on the following excerpt from the charge: "I further charge you that, by legislative act, the State Highway Board is authorized to determine those portions of any highway where overtaking and passing, or driving to the left of the roadway would be especially hazardous and may by appropriate signs or markings on the highway indicate the beginning and end of such zones, and when such signs or markings are in place and clearly visible to an ordinarily observant person, every driver of a vehicle shall obey the directions thereof." This charge which is in the language of Code (Ann.) 68-1638 indicates that the jury would be authorized to find from the evidence (a) that there were signs or markings on the road in question which had been put there by the State Highway Board, and (b) that such signs or markings indicated a no-passing zone. As to (a) the charge was proper, since under Code (Ann.) 68-1610 (c) a sign or marking on a State highway is presumed to have been put there by the authority of the State Highway Department. As to (b), however, the question arises as to whether the existence of a yellow line to the right of the center line is such a sign as all motorists, and especially the defendant, must be presumed to understand to mean that he is in a no-passing zone. In the Uniform Traffic Control Act the legislature (Code, Ann., 68-1613 through 68-1615) set out the meanings of certain illuminated traffic-control lights and signals. Nowhere in the law does it establish the meaning of a yellow line painted on a highway. Code (Ann.) 68-1609 provides for the adoption by the State Highway Board of a manual of uniform traffic-control devices, and Code (Ann.) 68-1610 provides for the placing and maintenance of such devices (which under Code, Ann., 68-1504 (6) (a) includes signals and markers) violation of which shall prima facie be deemed violation of the law. The State Highway Board is, however, an administrative body with no constitutional authority to enact rules having the authority of law the violation of which shall be a penal offense. A violation of Code (Ann.) 68-1638 (passing in a no-passing zone) is a penal offense under Code (Ann.) 68-9926. The interpretation of signs and signals as provided by the manual of the State Highway Board is not a matter of which this court can take judicial cognizance, nor one which it can presume that every motorist is familiar with, to the extent of imposing penal sanctions for disobedience thereof.
The manual of Uniform Traffic-Control devices provided for in Code (Ann.) 68-1609 is not in evidence. It may be presumed, however, that such a manual has been adopted by the State Highway Board, it having been directed so to do, and it is to be presumed that public officers have performed their duty, nothing to the contrary appearing. Alston v. Mobley, 42 Ga. App. 98 (2) (155 S. E. 81). It is not to be presumed that the defendant has knowledge of its contents, because it does not itself constitute a law of this State and the law does not provide for the making of such manual available to, or knowledge of the contents thereof by licensed operators of motor vehicles. In view of Code (Ann.) 68-1610 (c) all traffic-control devices placed on the highway are presumed to be placed there by the authority of the State Highway Board of this State. Those which are self-explanatory are such that a violation thereof is a penal offense under Code (Ann.) 68-9926. However, no law explains the meaning of a yellow line painted on the surface of a highway to the right of the center line, and such a line fails to explain itself. Therefore, in the absence of any properly placed sign explaining the meaning thereof, the crossing of such a yellow line by a motorist to get in the opposite lane of traffic is not of itself a penal offense. If there were any signs at all near this point along this roadway on which the defendant was traveling which read, "no passing when yellow line is right of center", or other like wording, it does not appear from this record. As a matter of fact the judges of this court and the public generally know that a yellow line so placed means a no-passing zone, but it may equally well be that the manual of the State Highway Board provides for other traffic-control devices, the meaning of which is not, as a matter of fact, known to the general public. Accordingly, the question here presented is not what a certain sign is generally understood to mean as a matter of fact, but whether its violation is a crime, as a matter of law. All traffic-control devices placed on the highway in accordance with Code (Ann.) 68-1609 and 68-1610, which are provided for by law, or which are self-explanatory in accordance with their appearance on the highway itself are sufficient to form the basis of a penal offense in case of their violation. The yellow line shown by the evidence here, is not such a traffic-control device. Code 26-201 provides in part that "a crime or misdemeanor shall consist in a violation of a public law." This defendant was placed on trial for the offense of murder. He was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the commission of an unlawful act. The charge complained of authorized the jury to find that unlawful act to be the crossing over the yellow line, that being the only sign which the evidence authorized the jury to find that the defendant had violated. The charge complained of in this special ground of the amended motion for new trial was unauthorized and requires reversal.
5. The court further committed error in charging that the punishment for involuntary manslaughter in the commission of an unlawful act is two to five years, thus depriving the defendant of the benefit of a minimum sentence, since the punishment prescribed in Code 26-1010 is one to five years. Error in charging the minimum sentence to be inflicted is error. Summerville v. State, 69 Ga. App. 553 (2) (26 S. E. 2d 301); Johnson v. State, 100 Ga. 78 (25 S. E. 940); Thompson v. State, 151 Ga. 328 (106 S. E. 278); Moore v. State, 150 Ga. 679 (104 S. E. 907). It may be harmless error where it is obvious that the error would not have affected the sentence determined by the jury. Daniel v. State, 24 Ga. App. 557 (101 S. E. 812). Here the jury tried two defendants jointly as to which the evidence showed that both were engaged in "drag-racing." It gave the codefendant, who did not actually hit the victim, what it understood to be a minimum sentence, and added one year above that to the punishment of the defendant Maxwell. It may be that the jury thereby intended to affix a minimum punishment to the defendant not actually physically involved in the collision, and one year more to the defendant who was. Had the jury been correctly informed as to the punishment, we have no assurance that the sentences imposed would not have been one and two years respectively instead of two and three years as rendered. The error must accordingly be presumed harmful.
6. The general grounds and special ground 2, not being argued, are treated as abandoned. The inaccuracies complained of in special grounds 3 and 4 are not likely to recur on another trial of this case. Special ground 10, contending that "the court failed to charge the jury the definition in terms of law of involuntary manslaughter," is too vague and indefinite to present any question for decision. Drane v. State, 147 Ga. 212 (2) (93 S. E. 217).
The trial court erred in denying the motion for new trial for the reasons stated in divisions 4 and 5 of this opinion.
Judgment reversed. Gardner, P. J., and Carlisle, J., concur.
Chastine Parker, Solicitor-General, Horace T. Clary, Assistant Solicitor-General, contra.
Harl C. Duffey, Jr., Fullbright & Duffey, for plaintiff in error.
DECIDED MARCH 14, 1958.
Saturday May 23 01:22 EDT


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