State’s Top Court Sets Precedent to Hold Dangerous Drivers Accountable

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.

sabados.jpgPeter and Lillian Sabados were two of many New Yorkers killed by a driver whose license had been suspended. This month’s ruling may aid prosecutors in cases where a license was suspended for dangerous driving. Photo: Daily News

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. 

  • This is an excellent ruling! It would not have been possible if there was only simple negligence at issue. Here, where gross negligence had to be proven to establish criminally negligent homicide, the court correctly reasoned that driving with a suspended license is a separate act of negligence in addition to the back-over, which the jury could consider.

    I wonder if this precedent can be extended to civil suits in which there is a claim for punitive damages or the plaintiff otherwise seeks to prove more than simple negligence. That would be helpful. As the defense attorney in this case fully understood, there aren’t many juries who will excuse your driving misconduct if you commit it with a suspended license!

    The collision at issue in this case is chilling. This driver who surely needs to be taken off the road and punished severely. For the convenience of her passengers who couldn’t walk a few more steps to get their pizza, she backed up without looking and killed an old lady in the crosswalk! Unbelievable.

  • MRN

    I’m torn on this. A vast majority of those with suspended licenses are poor and their license was suspended because of failure to pay some fine or another. For the most part, the courts have acknowledged that fact by not holding a suspended license against someone. And although we like to think of driving as a privilege, it’s a privilege that’s a necessity for gainful employment (and supporting families…) for huge numbers of Americans. I’m as anti-car as anyone, but this is the type of ruling that will unfortunately only come to bear against the poor and marginalized.

  • Ian Turner

    MRN, is that just speculation, or do you have some evidence to back up your claims?

  • Red

    MRH, if you missed this, Judge Smith addresses your point at least in the ruling cited above:

    “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.”

  • Myron

    I wonder what sentencing happens with criminally negligent homicide; new york you don’t even need a car, it should have been very easy to comply with having your license suspended.

  • A giant step forward
    go Vance

  • Sloppy Reporting

    Was going to cite this case for a paper that I was writing and looked into the 1st incident and saw some creative license here. Defendant was confronted in her vehicle by the officer, she didn’t “jump in”. Also defendant did not “back out of the space” she pulled forward and away, never even reveresed. The rest of the case is relying on the DMV to actually act in a (key word) timely manner. I can respect what the DA is trying to do here, but I smell scapegoat. It’s reasons like this that prior bad acts are a real thorny issue.

  • Joe R.

    This is a good ruling but the real problem is the sheer number of people driving around with suspended ( or even no ) licenses. The state should be allowed to seize and auction off the vehicles of any person found driving without a valid license. This seems to be the only reliable way of keeping unlicensed drivers off the road for good. Additionally, anyone caught driving with a suspended license, regardless of the reason it was suspended, should lose their driving privileges for life. To keep things fair however, we shouldn’t suspend licenses only for unpaid parking tickets, but rather for moving violations. The argument that driving is often needed for gainful employment has been used way too much to keep people on the roads who really shouldn’t be there. In fact, if stricter licensing/enforcement eventually gets a large segment of the population out of cars for good, we’ll have a larger demographic to demand and use better public transit. That’s exactly what we need-more people spending money on public transit instead of private cars.

  • Blondielynn72

    Mr. Kazis perhaps should read better into the facts of the above case. Caban’s licence WAS ONLY suspended because she failed to pay the violations issued to her (she was fighting the tickets and awaiting a response frrm Albany). Caban’s license was NOT suspended because of prior acts similar to the case at hand. Also Caban DID look in both rear view mirror and turned her head around to make sure noone was behind the vehicle. Caban in fact was NEVER sent a suspension notice until January 9, 2003 (exactly 7 days after Ms. matin was killed). PLEASE READ THE TRIAL MINUTES, CABAN’S CONFESSION AND THEN WRITE AN EDUCATED ARTICLE.

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