When does just plain bad driving cross the line and become criminally negligent driving? According to the State of New York, almost never. As advocates and legal experts will tell you, our laws make it notoriously difficult to bring appropriate charges against those who cause serious injury or death with their cars. But a decision [PDF] handed down by the state Court of Appeals should give prosecutors an important new tool.
On April 1, the court ruled that driving with a suspended license can be used as evidence of criminal negligence. The case, People v. Lynette Caban, was prosecuted by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, mostly under Robert Morgenthau. Current DA Cy Vance took over just in time for oral arguments. "The Court’s significant decision reinforces that driving upon our streets is a privilege, not a right," said Vance in a written statement. "This ruling is a significant step in holding drivers accountable for dangerous and unsafe operation of a vehicle."
On January 2, 2003, Caban was driving up Manhattan’s Third Avenue when she stopped near 107th Street to let out passengers, according to court documents. While backing up the car, she hit and killed an elderly woman, Francesca Maytin. Maytin was in the crosswalk.
Caban’s license had been suspended months earlier for a similar unsafe maneuver. On October 3, 2002, Caban was illegally parked at a bus stop and when she saw an officer writing her a ticket, jumped into her car and attempted to back out of the space. She drove into the middle of a busy intersection in front of a school, just as students were arriving. Caban’s license was still suspended when she killed Maytin.
While it seems the status of Caban’s license should be relevant as a matter of course, there is a longstanding legal principle that past misdeeds, if used to portray the defendant as the kind of person likely to commit a certain kind of crime, are not admissible evidence. The defense argued that neither past offenses nor past punishments affected the quality of Caban’s driving on January 2, 2003, but they might have affected the jury’s perception of it.
Until this decision, that’s precisely what New York State law said. "Until Caban, it was held that it would be prejudicial for the jury to consider the fact that a defendant’s driver’s license had been suspended," explains Maureen McCormick, head of vehicular crimes at the Nassau County DA’s office and a long-time voice for tougher treatment of drivers who kill.
But according to New York’s highest court, in a unanimous ruling, driving with a suspended license is relevant to determining negligence.
To convict someone of criminal negligence, the court wrote, it isn’t just necessary to find the defendant’s actions unreasonable; it must be determined that the defendant’s actions represented a "gross deviation" from reasonable. Therefore, if driving with a suspended license made her behavior more negligent, it’s relevant. As Judge Robert Smith wrote for the court:
"A jury could find that it is unreasonable to back up quickly into a crosswalk, without checking carefully to be sure that no one is in the way; but that it is even more unreasonable to do so when the state has forbidden the driver from driving at all. A jury could find that the license suspension should, if it did not keep defendant off the road, at least have prompted her to pay more attention to safety while she was driving, and that in failing to do so she deviated grossly from what a reasonable person would have done."
Street safety advocates praised the decision as a major advance in the fight to get dangerous drivers off the streets. "The Court of Appeals decision affirms what we logically believe: that reasonable people don’t drive when their license is suspended," said Kyle Wiswall, the general counsel for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. "Those insisting on putting themselves and others at risk should be on notice."
"The Caban court finally acknowledged the relevance and probative value of a license suspension that is based on unsafe driving," said McCormick. "This is a win for the juries we rely on to provide justice to victims."
However, the ruling doesn’t mean that anyone who drives without a license is criminally negligent, even if they kill someone while doing so. The court explicitly noted a number of situations in which driving with a suspended license wouldn’t affect a negligence case, such as when a license was suspended for reasons other than unsafe driving. Wrote Judge Smith:
"Defendant would have a better argument for exclusion if her license had been suspended, for example, for failure to pay parking tickets. But it was not. It was suspended for conduct frighteningly similar to the conduct that caused Francesca Maytin’s death — backing unsafely into a crosswalk."
Additionally, driving with a suspended license is only one of a number of factors prosecutors can choose to use to show negligence. The will and resources to prosecute vehicular crimes will still be prerequisites to proper enforcement of traffic laws and safer streets.
Even so, the Manhattan DA’s office reports that the court’s ruling will affect cases currently pending. In cases where those who already lost their license due to dangerous driving have killed or injured innocent people, the Caban ruling should help bring a measure of justice.