New York state’s highest court recently held that driving negligently and then striking a person with your vehicle is a criminal offense. This decision came when the court upheld New York City’s “Right-of-Way” ordinance, a regulation creating a misdemeanor when drivers do not practice “due care” and end up harming either a cyclist or pedestrian, who has right-of-way.
An appellate court’s previous ruling ruled against the two drivers in cases involving fatalities. These drivers argued that if negligence results in the death or serious injury of a cyclist or pedestrian, a criminal charge should not result.
One of the drivers was a bus driver who passed too closely to a cyclist, who had the right of way. The bus driver subsequently killed the cyclist.
The Argument about Mens Rea
At a lower court level, both drivers argued they did not commit an offense that resulted in a criminal charge. This argument was based on the concept that a person charged with a criminal offense must have the appropriate mens rea. The Latin term, mens rea, references a person’s degree of mental culpability at the time that a criminal offense is committed.
In cases involving criminal offenses, the challenge lies on the prosecutor to establish that the person who committed the offense was aware that his behavior violated a law and that this person acted with an understanding of this violation.
Effectively, both drivers argued that not yielding when a driver is supposed to is only a criminal offense if a suspect acts intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence. These are the types of “culpable mental states” defined under New York’s penal law.
The Appeal by the Drivers
One appeal was initiated by a driver who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor offense of failure-to-yield following the death of a pedestrian in 2016 close to Javits Center. As part of his appeal, the driver claimed he lacked sufficient mens rea. The appeal court later rejected Torres’ argument.
The bus driver also appealed his conviction over his failure to exercise “due care” and subsequent killing of a bike rider in 2017. The bus driver introduced an argument similar to the one raised by Torres, but the bus driver’s appeal was rejected in 2019.
Both appeals subsequently were disrupted and set aside by a unanimous decision. This unanimous decision also set aside an argument that the city of New York lacks the authority to categorize an act not classified as a crime under New York vehicular law as a criminal offense.
The New York Supreme Court’s Decision
A New York Supreme Court Justice writing for the court disagreed with both parties. This Judge held that the “right-of-way” regulation is not silent about mens rea. Instead, the law specifies a mens rea of ordinary negligence. The judge also added that the legislature has enacted many laws that impose criminal liability based on ordinary negligence. The case ultimately ended up at the Court of Appeals.
The Role of Preemption
The idea that cities in New York or elsewhere in the United States might pass regulations surpassing the role of state laws is referred to as “preemption.” The conception of preemption is commonly utilized to challenge city laws that conflict with state law. The city laws in this scenario, however, do not directly conflict with state law.
The judge who issued the appellate ruling, however, found that no preemption of state laws by city laws results from application of the right-of-way law. New York vehicle law permits city lawmakers to enact regulations related to several things including the role of pedestrians or traffic on any highways. This has been read to include right-of-way issues for both pedestrians and vehicles. Because right-of-wall falls within the scope of city-maker authority, this defeats potential preemption arguments.
Commentary by the Attorney for the Victims
An attorney who represents loved ones of the deceased bicyclist and pedestrian has since commented that he feels vindicated with the decision. The lawyer emphasized that “traditional” negligence is sufficient to establish a criminal offense and is a sufficiently culpable mens rea. The lawyer also stated that a state law provision exists granting cities the power to legislate for right-of-ways. Additionally, the lawyer anticipated that lawmakers for cities throughout New York will now feel encouraged to establish new regulations.
Response by the District Attorney
An associated District Attorney in the Manhattan district also expressed favor for the ruling, particularly due to his office’s work in prosecuting both the drivers at trial as well as appellate levels. The District Attorney expressed thankfulness for the prosecutors who since the beginning have defended the regulation’s constitutionality.
The Court’s Concurring Opinion
The ruling also resulted in some concern by activists who promote street safety. Justice Wilson agreed with the majority decision, but commented on the history of city and state efforts to limit the number of reckless drivers. These efforts began by establishing “traffic violation” summons so drivers were not constantly facing criminal offenses due to violation of traffic ordinances. Justice Wilson also noted that legislative history raises a concern of traffic violations carrying too much criminal stigma and as a result inspired lawmaker at the time to begin utilizing traffic summonses rather than categorizing the entirety of crashes leading to injuries as criminal offenses.
The 1934 bill established traffic summonses to remove the significant stigma of criminal charges which is now associated with even less serious traffic violations. At this time, three fourths of offenses labeled as misdemeanors were cases associated with traffic. Justice Wilson noted that during this era, the public could quickly earn criminal records despite not being criminal to any degree.
Escalating Traffic Fatalities in New York City
This decision from the appellate court comes at a time when the number of deaths on New York City roads is increasing substantially. This increase is also due at least in part to a 50% drop in the number of moving violation tickets written by New York City Police Department Officers.
Contact a Long Island MVA Attorney
If you or a loved one has been injured or killed in a vehicular accident in New York, you need the assistance of a compassionate attorney. Contact the Law Office of Cohen & Jaffe LLP today to schedule a free case evaluation.
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