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§ 940.25(1)(a), Injury by Intoxicated Use — No Duty to Clarify Meaning of “Materially Impaired” Element Upon Jury Request

State v. Jonathan J. Hubbard, 2008 WI 92, reversing 2007 WI App 240
For Hubbard: Steven W. Zaleski

Issue: Whether, upon jury request for clarification of “materially impaired” under the instructions for injury by intoxicated use of a vehicle, § 940.25(1)(a), the trial court properly responded that the should “give all words not otherwise defined in the jury instructions their ordinary meaning.”

Holding:

¶57      The circuit court had discretion to determine the necessity for, extent of, and form of reinstruction of the jury when responding to its request for clarification. Hareng, 90 Wis. 2d at 166 (citations omitted). Judge Wolfgram could have exercised his discretion by instructing the jury to re-read the jury instructions in their possession in light of the jury’s request for a definition of “materially” impaired. “[A] court is not obligated to provide a jury with information solely because the jury believes it is important to its decision.” State v. Lombard, 2004 WI App 52, ¶20, 271 Wis.  2d 529, 678 N.W.2d 338. However, once Judge Wolfgram correctly determined that “materially impaired” was not defined by “the Waalen language,” he did not erroneously exercise his discretion by responding that the jury should give undefined words in the jury instructions their ordinary meaning. “If the overall meaning communicated by the instructions was a correct statement of the law, no grounds for reversal exist.” Fischer, 168 Wis. 2d at 850 (citations omitted).¶58      We hold that the court of appeals erred when it determined that this court’s decision in Waalen gave the statutory term “materially impaired” a “peculiar meaning in the context of criminal charges,” Hubbard, 306 Wis. 2d 356, ¶12, and that the jury should have been instructed accordingly. Id., ¶17. Thus, the circuit court did not erroneously exercise its discretion when it responded to the jury’s request for clarification by indicating that the jury should “give all words not otherwise defined in the jury instructions their ordinary meaning.” This succinct answer may not always suffice, but it was correct on the facts presented.

As the Chief Justice points out in concurrence (¶74), Waalen “made clear that the meaning of ‘materially’ for purposes of Wis. Stat. § 939.22(42) is less demanding of the prosecution than the term ‘substantially’ which constitutes the ordinary dictionary meaning of ‘materially.’” The net result, as the Chief then points out, is that the challenged instruction made it harder than necessary for the State to obtain a conviction.

 

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