New York City Pedestrian Protection Law ruled Unconstitutional because it utilizes Civil Tort Liabil
The Defendant here, Isaac Sanson, was charged with violating Administrative Code of the City of New York '19-190 (hereinafter "AC '19-190"), the purported Right of Way law. The Defendant alleged that the law is "unconstitutional since it violates the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution and the protections afforded under the state constitution." People v. Sanson, 2015QN008701, NYLJ 1202761142847, at *1 (Crim., QU, Decided June 24, 2016). The basic argument is that the law merely required a negligence standard to impose criminal liability.
The very basic elements of criminal law is the requirement of a guilty act and a guilty mind. Except for certain strict liability crimes (such as statutory rape), the two are indispensable. As was an issue in a recent Supreme Court case, the level of mental wrong doing is at issue in the court case here. Utilizing that same case, the Court strikes the statute down.
The New York Law Journal reported that:
Local Law 29, which was signed into law in June 2014 as part of the Vision Zero initiative and codified as Administrative Code §19-190, made into a misdemeanor failure to exercise due care for motorists who strike pedestrians or cyclists and cause injury, which was previously a traffic violation.
Ruling in People v. Sanson, 2015QN008701, a case involving a school bus driver charged with misdemeanor failure to yield after he struck a pedestrian in a Queens crosswalk, Queens Criminal Court Judge Gia Morris ruled that the law violated the defendant's Fourth and Fifteenth Amendment rights.
New York City instituted a "Vision Zero" which were intended to eliminate or alleviate the amount of pedestrian injuries and fatalities. A number of New York City pedestrians find themselves in various accidents or find themselves injured as a result of a negligent driver. Often resulting in personal injury lawsuits, these drivers are usually considered negligent or grossly negligent at best. The law at issue is as follows:
19-190(A) provides, in relevant part, "[A]ny driver of a motor vehicle who fails to yield to a pedestrian or person riding a bicycle when such pedestrian or person has the right of way shall be guilty of a traffic infraction, which shall be punishable by a fine of not more than fifty dollars or imprisonment for not more than fifteen days or both such fine and imprisonment."
19-190(B) provides, in relevant part, "[A]ny driver of a motor vehicle who violates subdivision (a) of this section and whose motor vehicle causes contact with a pedestrian or person riding a bicycle and thereby causes physical injury, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor, which shall be punishable by a fine or not more than two hundred fifty dollars, or imprisonment for not more than thirty days or both such fine and imprisonment;
19-190(c) provides, in relevant part "It shall not be a violation of this section if the failure to yield and/or physical injury was not caused by the driver's failure to exercise due care."
Sanson, at * 2. "[T]he defendant argues that AC '19-190, Right of Way, is unconstitutional because it lacks the culpable mens rea required pursuant to PL '15.05 and is violative of his rights to due process under the state and federal constitutions." Id. at * 4. The argument passes muster - there must be a criminal mindset to find one guilty of a crime.
A little more than a year ago, the Supreme Court determined the Elonis case, a case involving considerations of what the requisite Mens Rea, or criminal mindset, should be required to find someone guilty of posting threats through the internet. In Elonis, the conduct at issue involved facebook posts. These posts varied from threatening an ex-wife to FBI agents. Still, the posts were general, posted on facebook, and may not necessarily be seen as a threat(s) because Elonis was a rap artist who used suggestive lyrics, or so he said. The posts, however, the Supreme Court held was not enough to find him guilty of the crime at issue in his case - he needed to possess the requisite mens rea for the crime. The Elonis case served as a a reminder that the criminal mindset element, Mens Rea, still matters:
Such use of a civil tort liability standard of negligence in a criminal case violates a defendant's rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the federal constitution and state constitutional protections. Specifically, it violates a defendant's right to due process, to be presumed innocent, and a defendant's rights against self-incrimination. Thus, the defendant has met his burden of establishing, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the statute is unconstitutional.
Sanson at * 7. Just like in Elonis, the standard must be more than a standard of negligence for criminal liability to apply. The Court in Sanson held that the statute is unconstitutional: "AC '19-190, Right of Way law is unconstitutional on its face since it utilizes the civil tort liability standard of negligence instead of a criminal mens rea standard as required under both the state and federal constitutions and codified in PL '15.05." Id. at * 7.