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Driver in two car crashes may be criminally liable for responding officer’s death

February 18, 2015 By Charisma L. Troiano, Esq. Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Appellate Division Justice L. Priscilla Hall, along with three other justices, agreed that a patient with schizoaffective disorder lacked the capacity to make reasoned decisions about her medical care. Photo by Marc Hibsher
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A Brooklyn appellate court has reinstated charges against a drunk driver and found that criminal liability may apply even when a defendant is not the immediate cause of a deadly accident.

In assessing the rules of criminal procedure and the definition of legal cause, the justices ruled that foreseeability of harm or death was a key factor in sustaining the charge and indictment.

James Ryan was arrested after Nassau County prosecutors alleged he caused two car collisions on the Long Island Expressway in 2012. According to court documents and evidence presented to a grand jury, Ryan was driving while drunk, and after the two separate crashes, he stopped in an HOV lane on the expressway.

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An unidentified police officer responded, and while standing next to Ryan’s car, the officer was “struck and killed when the driver of a sport utility vehicle traveling in the HOV lane did not see him or [Ryan’s] stopped car in time to avoid hitting them.” 

Prosecutors charged Ryan with the officer’s death, arguing that his actions — the crashes that the officer was responding to and his vehicle being stopped on the highway — were to blame for that officer being on the expressway and his untimely death.  

Ryan challenged, and a Nassau Supreme Court agreed that the charge and the grand jury indictment were erroneous because Ryan was not the actual cause of the officer’s death. In other words, Ryan contended that the driver of the SUV actually provided the fatal hit — thus causing the officer’s death. 

In New York, a defendant can be held criminally liable for another’s death if the defendant engaged in conduct that actually contributed to the victim’s death.  

In arguing to dismiss, Ryan’s attorney focused on the issue of causation and, in particular, the direct cause of the officer’s death. Ryan asserted that while the officer was responding to accidents for which Ryan may have been responsible, Ryan was not the actual cause of the officer’s death. Instead, the argument continued, the SUV driver, “who failed to see the officer as well as the defendant’s stopped vehicle, [was] a superseding cause of the officer’s death.” 

The Nassau Supreme Court found that there was a 5- to 10-minute gap between Ryan’s multiple car collisions and the arrival of the SUV that eventually crashed into the responding officer.

In the lower court’s view, the death of the officer was not part of a “continuing chain of events” set in motion by the defendant but was caused solely by the conduct of the driver of the SUV, court papers noted.  The charge against Ryan for the officer’s death was stricken. 

Prosecutors appealed to the Appellate Division, Second Department, which reversed the lower court’s ruling on all counts.

The Brooklyn-based court gently broke down the evidentiary standard for grand jury presentations and the meaning of cause. New York’s criminal procedural law authorizes grand juries to hand down indictments when the evidence before it is legally sufficient to establish that the defendant committed the crime accused.

As the Brooklyn justices explain, “legally sufficient evidence means competent evidence which, if accepted as true, would establish every element of an offense charged and the defendant’s commission thereof.” 

In assessing whether the evidence against Ryan was legally sufficient to support a full indictment, including the charge for the death of the responding officer, the higher appeals court reviewed causation and the role Ryan played in the officer’s ultimate end.  

According to the four-judge Brooklyn panel, “the test is, instead, whether it may be reasonably foreseen that the defendant’s actions would result in the victim’s death.”

In other words, if it can be expected that an officer would be hit by a car while responding to an accident on the expressway, then Ryan can be found criminally liable.  

“[The] defendant’s actions may, under the criminal law, constitute a ‘sufficiently direct cause’ of the death to warrant criminal liability for it,” the court wrote. 

Reviewing the facts, the court held that it was “reasonably foreseeable” that Ryan driving while intoxicated would “cause collisions … 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 Brooklyn justices reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated the charges against Ryan for the responding officer’s death. 

Associate Justices Reinaldo E. Rivera, Ruth C. Balkin, L. Pricscilla Hall and Sandra L. Sgroi sat on the deciding panel.  Matthew C. Hug, from Troy, N.Y, represented Ryan, and Robert A. Schwartz and Sarah S. Rabinowitz served as of counsel for the Nassau County District Attorney’s office.

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