New York’s Highest Court “Systematically Decriminalizing” Vehicular Killings

The manslaughter plea of David McKie, sentenced earlier this month for running down Manhattan pedestrian Karen Schmeer as he fled police following a petty theft, points to a trend in vehicular crimes law that is resulting in lighter sentences for drivers who kill.

A Court of Appeals decision in a separate case resulted in a reduced charge for the man who killed Karen Schmeer, and will make it more difficult for other victims of traffic crime to find justice. Photo: Garret Savage

On the evening of January 29, 2010, McKie was behind the wheel of a Dodge racing north on Broadway after he and two other men, also in the car, shoplifted over-the-counter cold medication from an Upper West Side pharmacy. Schmeer was on her way home when McKie struck her as she attempted to cross Broadway at 90th Street. She was 39.

McKie was initially charged with murder, but in July prosecutors from the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance allowed him to plead to manslaughter. On September 7 he was sentenced to five to 15 years. Vance’s office reportedly backed off the murder charge in light of a recent decision by the Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court — that reversed a conviction in a similar case.

In October 2004, according to court documents [PDF], Michael Edward Prindle led police on a high-speed chase through Rochester after he and another man were caught trying to steal two snow plows. Prindle, who was driving, subsequently rammed another vehicle, killing a passenger. Prindle was convicted of murder, but last February the Court of Appeals overturned the verdict.

From the Prindle ruling:

[W]e conclude that the evidence adduced at trial does not support the jury’s conclusion that defendant evinced a depraved indifference to human life … Here, at most, the evidence adduced was legally sufficient to support a finding of reckless manslaughter.

“The assessment of the effect of Prindle by the Manhattan district attorney’s office is regrettably correct,” says Maureen McCormick, Nassau County ADA and traffic justice trailblazer. “The Court of Appeals decisions in recent years appear to be systematically decriminalizing vehicular cases. Oddly it comes as the legislature — ever so slowly — is attempting to better define and prioritize these cases, at least to a degree.”

The ramifications are significant, as the Prindle decision is one of several to demonstrate bias against cases in which crimes are committed with cars. Last week, the State Supreme Court’s Appellate Division upheld the murder conviction of Martin Heidgen, the drunk motorist who in 2005 killed limousine driver Stanley Rabinowitz and 7-year-old Katie Flynn as Flynn’s family returned home from a Long Island wedding. The case made national headlines due the gruesome nature of the crash, the unquestionable innocence of its young victim, and the vigor with which McCormick’s boss, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice, pursued it. But with Heidgen’s legal team set to mount another challenge in the Court of Appeals, the ultimate outcome is in doubt.

To give prosecutors a better shot at getting justice for victims like Karen Schmeer, McCormick says it’s up to Albany to correct loopholes in state traffic law — as the Court of Appeals itself has suggested. “In a common law society it is incumbent that the legislature reacts swiftly to decisions that do not represent the intent or spirit of the legislation that the Court purports to interpret. That does not really happen here with the speed necessary to be effective.”

“Much needs to change,” adds McCormick. “We keep working toward that change.”

  • MRB

    Tougher penalties aren’t going to protect pedestrians, cyclists, or even other drivers; and certainly not in cases like this.

  • Bolwerk

    I’m generally sympathetic to the idea society needs to be tougher on anti-social behavior that happens behind the wheel, but murder could be a little harsh for somebody with no clear intent to kill, even if they’re committing another crime and acting callously. A better solution would just be harsher penalties for homicides involving vehicles period, with the additional harshness graded from unintentional homocides with (1) no especially unusual level of disregard for human life to (2) callous disregard (2a) without malice/hostility and (2b) with malice/hostility to (3) intentional hostility (3a) without and (3b) with the actual intent to deprive others of life.

    (1) is by far the most common class of vehicular homicide, and it’s so common that examples are usually called accidents and rarely involve criminal charges when, in most cases, they should.  The crimes above fall somewhere in the spectrum of 2a or 2b.  Throw in existing penalties for things like being drunk and hard time can add up quickly.

  • Scott Johnson

    Does NY have a “felony murder” statute (i.e. a law defining accidental deaths caused during the commission of a felony, such as running over someone with a getaway car after a bank robbery or inadvertently killing someone in a deliberately-set fire) on the books?  It probably wouldn’t help in the Schmeer case–shoplifting not being a felony–but it is a useful tool to deal with incidents such as these.

  • Scott Johnson

    That should say–defining accidental deaths caused while committing a felony, as murder. 

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  • Philip Orton

    Uh, your title is completely misleading and over the top… I agree these people need lots of jail time, but words matter. This is definitely NOT decriminalization, it is reduced sentencing… Even if it’s somebody elses quote.

    Don’t behave like a NY Post writer with sensationalism! And you wasted my time by misleading me into reading …

  • The underlying problem here is that there is no ‘just’ resolution to an accidental death.  No matter how irresponsible the driver was, their behavior isn’t equivalent to intentionally taking a life, and it shouldn’t and can’t be punished like an intentional murder.  But the result for the victim’s loved ones is the same; there’s no way that a relatively minor conviction (for manslaughter or negligent homicide) will seem just to someone who lost a loved one.  Looking for a ‘just’ outcome in such a case requires reconciling two mutually exclusive demands.

    Focusing on criminal charges in deadly accidents is an understandable response that misses the point.  Nobody’s going to change their behavior based on the tiny chance that they’ll have a serious accident and face a criminal charge.  But drivers do change their behavior when they face a high chance of (even minor) punishment.  We need aggro traffic enforcement: more and better ticketing for unsafe driving.  More red light cameras; lots more speed enforcement on city streets; more suspended licenses.

  • Brad Aaron

    @3066c804314dce9ee798de83b34d371b:disqus Gotcha!

  • Nathanael

    I’d accept routine manslaughter convictions.

    The real problem is how many people — huge numbers — commit vehicular manslaughter and get away without the felony conviction and without the 5-15 years in prison.

  • armyvet05

    Drive fast through red lights and there is a very good chance you will hit another vehicle and cause injury or death. These drivers intentionally drive fast and intentionally go through the red light. Physics dictates the result of injury or death in the highly likely chance that a car will be going through the concurrent green light.

    How that is not similar to intentionally causing death I just cannot wrap my head around- why do we craft our legal system to support stupidity? If a driver can’t understand the physics of “fast car+going through red light= injury or death” then they should not be allowed on the road- instead we award them with lower sentences.

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