Ruben Acosta Charged with Theft of Taxicab and Manslaughter

The events which resulted in this prosecution occurred on April 3. Ruben Corrales Acosta, a Mexican agricultural worker legally in the United States, could not speak English. He had been in this country since March 19. On April 3 Ruben Acosta went with fellow workers to a cafe in Torrance. Ruben Acosta drank five or six bottles of beer. He and an acquaintance then went to a cafe in Redondo Beach. There Ruben Acosta drank no more. He began to dance by himself. The proprietor, who spoke Spanish, led him out of the cafe. Ruben Acosta left politely. However, he returned and again danced by himself. A waitress called the police and the proprietor called a cab for Ruben Corrales Acosta. The proprietor interpreted for the police and Ruben Acosta. When the cab arrived the police directed the cab driver to take Ruben Acosta to the ranch where Ruben Acosta was employed, and explained that Ruben Acosta had no money but that the fare would be paid at the ranch or by the proprietor of the cafe.

After the cab driver had driven Ruben Acosta for a few minutes, Ruben Acosta spoke to him in Spanish, which the cab driver did not understand. About a year before a passenger had attempted to rob the driver and the cab driver had escaped by opening the door and rolling out of the cab; he recalled this incident and it influenced his conduct when Ruben Acosta began to behave strangely as hereinafter described. Ruben Acosta denied any violent conduct and testified that his purposes were innocent; the following description of the events is taken from the testimony of prosecution witnesses.

When the cab driver did not comprehend Ruben Acosta’s Spanish, Ruben Acosta reached into the front seat of the cab, seized the driver’s clip board and struck the driver. The cab driver struck at Ruben Acosta with his flashlight. Ruben Corrales Acosta pinned the cab driver’s arm back and struck at his neck with Ruben Acosta’s hand. The cab driver avoided the blow, opened the cab door, and rolled out. He had slowed to 10 or 15 miles an hour and pulled to the left side of the road. He left the car in high gear and did not turn off the ignition switch.

Other persons on the highway observed that the cab slackened speed, the passenger stood over the cab driver striking him, the driver rolled out of the car, the passenger got from the back seat into the front seat behind the wheel, the cab accelerated to about 60 miles an hour, ran through a red light, and hit another car broadside.

According to Ruben Corrales Acosta’s testimony and extrajudicial statements, he did not hit the cab driver with the clip board and did not get into the front seat of the cab, but attempted to steer it by reaching over the back of the front seat to the wheel. However, a prosecution witness observed that when the cab came to rest Ruben Acosta was in the front of the car, having been partially thrown to the floor, with his hips on the seat beneath the steering wheel and his head to the right.

Two passengers in the car which was struck by the cab were killed and the driver was seriously injured. Ruben Corrales Acosta was assisted from the cab. His right arm was injured. He got into another automobile, in which the driver had left the keys, and attempted unsuccessfully to start it. The police then removed Ruben Acosta from the automobile.

Ruben Corrales Acosta was charged by information in count 1 with grand theft of an automobile. Count 2 alleged that Ruben Corrales Acosta “did willfully, unlawfully and feloniously drive and take a certain vehicle … without the consent of and with intent to deprive the … owner … of title to and possession of said vehicle.” Counts 3 and 4 charged Ruben Corrales Acosta with manslaughter. A jury found Ruben Corrales Acosta not guilty of count 1 and guilty of counts 2, 3, and 4. Ruben Corrales Acosta appealed from the judgment as to count 2.

Ruben Acosta contended the trial court’s refusal of Ruben Acosta’s requested instruction as to misfortune and accident was prejudicial error.

It is Ruben Acosta’s position that the refusal of the following instruction requested by him deprived him of the opportunity to have this important aspect of the evidence properly appraised by the jury: “When a person commits an act or makes an omission through misfortune or by accident under circumstances that show no evil design, intention or culpable negligence, he does not thereby commit a crime, although the same act or omission committed under different circumstances and coupled with criminal intent would constitute a crime.”

The Supreme Court of California agreed Ruben Corrales Acosta was entitled to the instruction as to accident and misfortune in the terms or substance in which he requested it so that the jury’s attention would be directed to the possible, reasonable view of the evidence urged by Ruben Acosta.

The Judgment appealed from was reversed by The Supreme Court of California.

The facts summarized above are excerpted from what was written by The Supreme Court of California. More information is available from the source documents: B239942., Supreme Court of California, November 22, 1955, opinion of Schauer with Gibson, Carter and Traynor concurring.