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United States v. Flute

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

July 5, 2019

United States of America Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
Samantha Flute Defendant-Appellee

          Submitted: November 16, 2018

          Appeal from United States District Court for the District of South Dakota - Aberdeen

          Before COLLOTON, SHEPHERD, and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

          Shepherd, Circuit Judge.

         After the death of Samantha Flute's newborn baby due to combined drug toxicity, the United States charged her with one count of involuntary manslaughter committed within Indian Country, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1112 and 1153. Flute filed a motion to dismiss the Indictment on the grounds that the charged offense did not cover her or her conduct, and the district court granted the motion. The United States appeals. Having jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291, we reverse.

          I.

         On August 19, 2016, Samantha Flute arrived at a Sisseton, South Dakota hospital in full-term labor. She gave birth at 38 weeks gestation to a fully developed baby boy, Baby Boy Flute. Baby Boy Flute was well developed, normal and intact, with no obvious signs of trauma or injury, but died approximately four hours after birth. At the time of admission, Flute tested positive for cocaine and a number of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. During efforts to resuscitate Baby Boy Flute, Flute admitted that she had, shortly prior to his birth, taken three times the daily dose of Lorazepam, which had been prescribed to her during her only prenatal medical visit less than one week before Baby Boy Flute's birth; she had snorted hydrocodone, which she believed to have been laced with cocaine based on the feeling it gave her; and ingested cough medicine. Flute admitted that she knew that ingesting these substances was against the best interests of Baby Boy Flute, but that she did so because she needed to get high. An autopsy confirmed that Baby Boy Flute had no anatomical cause of death, but noted the presence of several substances that had not been medically administered to Baby Boy Flute while he was alive. The forensic pathologist who performed the autopsy concluded that Baby Boy Flute had died from combined drug toxicity due to the substances Flute ingested while Baby Boy Flute was still in utero.

         The government indicted Flute on one count of involuntary manslaughter. The Indictment specifically charged the following:

Between on or about August 19, 2016 and August 20, 2016, in Agency Village, in Indian country, in the District of South Dakota, Samantha Flute, an Indian, unlawfully killed a human being, Baby Boy Flute, without malice, in the commission of a lawful act in an unlawful manner which might produce death. Such act was committed in a grossly negligent manner, with actual knowledge that her conduct was a threat to the life of another and with actual knowledge that would reasonably enable her to foresee the peril to which her act subjected another, to wit: Samantha Flute did unlawfully kill Baby Boy Flute by ingesting prescribed and over-the-counter medicines in a grossly negligent manner, and did thereby commit the crime of involuntary manslaughter, in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1153 and 1112.

         Indictment 1-2, Dist. Ct. Dkt. 2. Flute filed a motion to dismiss the Indictment. She admitted that she gave birth to an alive Baby Boy Flute, but argued that even if she had engaged in the conduct alleged in the Indictment, the conduct did not constitute the charged offense under federal law because § 1112 was not intended to apply to a mother's conduct with respect to her unborn child. She also asserted that she could not be charged under § 1112 because an unborn child is not a "human being" for the purposes of that statute. Flute also asserted that the involuntary manslaughter statute was unconstitutionally vague as applied to her.

         The district court granted the motion to dismiss the Indictment, holding that the involuntary manslaughter statute did not apply to Flute because she was not within the class of defendants under the statute. In reaching this conclusion, the district court acknowledged that "Baby Boy Flute is within the class of victims Congress historically intended to protect under 18 U.S.C. § 1112." It nevertheless imported language from 18 U.S.C. § 1841 that bars "prosecution . . . of any woman with respect to her unborn child" to find that § 1112 did not reach Flute. The district court read this provision as "creat[ing] a class of persons who cannot be prosecuted under the federal criminal statutes for injury caused to an unborn child," and ultimately concluded that the provision was "a clear statement from Congress that the federal assault and murder statutes cannot be applied to the pregnant woman herself for any actions she takes with respect to her unborn child." United States v. Flute, No. 1:17-CR-10017-CBK, 2017 WL 5495170, at *3 (D.S.D. Nov. 14, 2017). The district court thus determined that, but for the § 1841 exception for mothers, Flute would have been an appropriate defendant. The district court did not address Flute's as-applied constitutional challenge.

         On appeal, the government asserts that the district court erroneously imported the § 1841 exception in determining that the federal involuntary manslaughter statute did not extend to the class of defendants of which Flute was a part-mothers who inflicted injury upon their unborn while the child was still in utero, leading to the child's death after birth. Rather, the government contends that § 1841 is a separate, unrelated, and uncharged statute without relevance to the application of the manslaughter statute to actions of a mother against her unborn child. Flute responds that the district court correctly applied § 1841 and also asserts that the Indictment should have been dismissed because Baby Boy Flute was not a human being when the injuries were sustained in utero and thus § 1112 does not criminalize Flute's conduct.

         II.

         "We review de novo a district court's dismissal of an indictment for failure to state an offense." United States v. Steffen, 687 F.3d 1104, 1109 (8th Cir. 2012). "An indictment is legally sufficient on its face if it contains all of the essential elements of the offense charged, fairly informs the defendant of the charges against which [s]he must defend, and alleges sufficient information to allow a defendant to plead a conviction or acquittal as a bar to subsequent prosecution." United States v. Fleming 8 F.3d 1264, 1265 (8th Cir. 1993). In determining whether a charged crime encompasses the conduct alleged, the court engages in statutory interpretation; the "starting point in interpreting a statute is always the language of the statute itself." United States v. Jungers, 702 F.3d 1066, 1069 (8th Cir. 2013) (quoting United States v. S.A., 129 F.3d 995, 998 (8th Cir. 1997)).

         Flute was indicted for involuntary manslaughter under 18 U.S.C. § 1112, which criminalizes "the unlawful killing of a human being without malice . . . in the commission . . . without due caution and circumspection, of a lawful act which might produce death" and under § 1153, which provides federal jurisdiction over crimes in Indian Country. The dispositive questions on appeal are whether Baby Boy Flute is within the class of victims protected by § 1112 and whether Flute is within the class of defendants covered by § 1112.

         A.

         Turning to the first question, we assess whether Baby Boy Flute, who sustained injuries in utero that caused his death after birth, falls within the class of victims protected by § 1112. Flute asserts that Baby Boy Flute does not because he was not a human being at the time the conduct which ultimately caused death occurred. We disagree with this contention and agree with the ...


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