Jury to Decide Homicide Charge for Traffic Accident Death when Defendant Was Not Driving
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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021
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Can a criminal defendant be convicted of vehicular homicide for an accidental death that occurs after the defendant stopped driving? In New York, the answer appears to be yes. Whether a Nassau County jury will hold James Ryan criminally responsible for the death remains to be seen.
James Ryan was driving on the Long Island Expressway in October 2012 when he clipped a BMW. Ryan stopped in the High Occupancy Vehicle Lane, where another car crashed into his, spinning it sideways. Ryan exited from his car and stood next to the guardrail as he waited for the police.
Nassau County Police Officer Joseph Olivieri arrived on the scene to investigate the accidents. Olivieri parked on the right shoulder, then crossed the highway to the HOV lane. He was standing there when an SUV collided with Ryan’s car. The SUV then hit and killed Olivieri.
A number of people potentially share responsibility for Olivieri’s death, including the driver who forced Ryan’s car sideways and the SUV driver who struck Olivieri. Neither of those drivers were charged with a crime. Olivieri may also have contributed to his own death by failing to position his patrol car behind the accident scene with his lights flashing to warn oncoming drivers of the accident.
Ryan was probably negligent when he struck the BMW and when he stopped in the HOV lane, but his negligence is attenuated from Olivieri’s death, given that two intervening accidents occurred after Ryan stopped driving, both of which contributed to Olivieri’s death. Nassau County prosecutors nevertheless decided to charge Ryan with vehicular homicide because his blood alcohol content was measured at 0.13%. The legal limit in New York is 0.08%. Driving while intoxicated is typically regarded as an act of criminal negligence when it results in harm to another person.
Criminal Charges Dismissed and Reinstated
Ryan was charged with more than a dozen crimes in addition to driving while intoxicated, including vehicular homicide, manslaughter, vehicular assault and criminally negligent homicide. Ryan’s lawyer moved to dismiss the charges related to Olivieri’s death, arguing that the death was caused by the driver of the SUV, not by Ryan.
While state laws vary, as a general rule a driver can be held responsible for a death caused by criminal negligence when the driver’s negligent act sets in motion a continuous chain of events that foreseeably cause a death, provided that the chain is not broken by an intervening act that becomes the sole cause of death. For example, the Supreme Court of Virginia decided that a driver was properly convicted of involuntary manslaughter when the driver fled from a police officer, setting in motion a high speed chase that ended when the officer lost control of his vehicle and crashed into another car, killing its occupant.
Courts often make a difficult judgment call in deciding whether a chain of events leading to death is continuous or is broken by an intervening act that should be regarded as the sole cause of death. That difficulty is illustrated by Ryan’s case.
Agreeing with Ryan’s attorney, the trial judge ruled that Olivieri’s death was not caused by a continuing chain of events that Ryan set in motion. The judge decided that the chain of events broke when Ryan got out of his car, and that the SUV driver set a new chain of events in motion by colliding with Ryan’s vehicle before striking Olivieri. In the judge’s view, the SUV driver was the sole cause of Olivieri’s death. The judge therefore dismissed the homicide and manslaughter charges.
The Appellate Division disagreed. The court considered it “reasonably foreseeable that the defendant’s conduct would cause collisions and that the police would respond and be required to be in the roadway, where they would be exposed to the potentially lethal danger presented by fast-moving traffic.” The Appellate Division therefore reinstated all charges against Ryan.
Ryan’s Fate Rests with Jury
It is certainly foreseeable that intoxicated driving will cause a collision, but it is less clear that a driver should foresee that after the collision, a police officer will die in a second collision caused by another driver who failed to observe and avoid what should have been an obvious accident scene. It will now be up to a jury to decide whether Ryan should be held criminally responsible for Olivieri’s death. The SUV driver has been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for testifying against Ryan.
As Ryan’s attorney points out, it is unusual to charge a driver with vehicular homicide for a death that was caused by an accident that took place after the driver was no longer driving. Two factors likely influenced the decision to bring so many serious charges against Ryan. One is the fact that he was driving while intoxicated. Ryan’s defense attorney contends that allegations of alcohol use have “blinded” the prosecutor to the reality that Ryan did not cause the accident that killed Olivieri.
The other key factor is that Olivieri was a police officer. The victim’s occupation has no relevance to the charge, but jurors (like prosecutors) are typically sympathetic to police officers. Given that police officers have turned out for all of Ryan’s hearings in large numbers and will probably do so during the trial, Ryan may face an uphill battle in seeking an acquittal.