Hit-and-Run in New York – Part 1

“[A]ll citizens will be required to change their underwear every half hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.” Woody Allen Bananas

New York doesn’t want drivers to evade liability for harm they may do. For this reason, the Vehicle and Traffic Law has very specific instructions for drivers who have been involved in an accident:

[B]efore leaving the place where the damage occurred, [each driver shall] stop, exhibit his or her license and insurance identification card for such vehicle, . . . and give his or her name, residence, including street and number, insurance carrier and insurance identification information including but not limited to the number and effective dates of said individual’s insurance policy, and license number to the party sustaining the damage, or in case the person sustaining the damage is not present at the place where the damage occurred then he or she shall report the same as soon as physically able to the nearest police station, or judicial officer.

Information gained through this mandatory disclosure can be used to make insurance claims, and in civil litigation, administrative proceedings and even criminal prosecutions (in cases where the driver may have been drunk, for example). However, even though the information can be used to prosecute the driver providing it, New York’s Court of Appeals has dismissed arguments that requiring the disclosure violates constitutional protections against self-incrimination. The court concluded in People v. Samuel, that

[t]he duties imposed . . . are reasonable exercises of police power by the State to regulate activities directly relevant to public safety. On this view, the incidental and limited risk of inculpation by identification and report of motor vehicle operators whose conduct involves, or is likely to involve, criminal accusations is insufficient to inhibit the regulatory power by the interposition of the privilege against self incrimination.

To encourage compliance, the same law forbids “leaving the scene of an incident without reporting” and makes the consequences of doing so very unpleasant.

The statute in question, Section 600 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, actually has a parallel structure, targeting two very different sorts of conduct: The first would be a mere failure to produce proper ID and/or insurance information at the scene. We’re more concerned here with the second, which might loosely be called the ‘hit-and-run’.

Under the law, if you leave the scene without reporting you’re guilty of a three-point traffic infraction. If you’re lucky. Depending on the ‘incident’, you might have committed a class B misdemeanor, class E felony or class D felony. The punishment is determined by the severity of the accident.

Although the underlying purpose is to make sure victims get justice (civil or criminal), fault has nothing to do with a prosecution under Section 600. The only threshold issue is whether you were involved in an accident in which someone else sustained at least property damage.

If you were (and you ran) and the only damage was to property (real or personal), you’ve committed the traffic infraction. Where the accident caused personal injury to another, the offense is a class B misdemeanor. In either case, it will do no good to deny that you knew about the injury if the court decides you ‘had cause to know’.

In People v. Castanheira, for instance, the defendant Castanheira had rear-ended another vehicle that, as a result, knocked down a pedestrian. The court, noting that Castanheira had driven right past the downed pedestrian in leaving, found that he “knew or should have known” the accident had resulted in an injury. (The court discounted a claim that the accident and Castanheira’s behavior afterward had been caused by something akin to a ‘mini-stroke’ that rendered his actions involuntary.)

If you ran, and the injury was ‘serious’ – a broken bone, for example, or even a bad enough laceration, you’re a felon. If it resulted in death, you’re guilty of a class D felony: you may pay more than $5,000 in fines and surcharges and spend up to seven years in prison. All the prosecution has to show is that (1) you were involved in an accident resulting in serious injury (or death); (2) you left the scene without reporting and (3) you “knew or had cause to know that personal injury had been caused to another person.” You needn’t know the injury was serious – as a driver found out to his cost in People v. Lewis.

Lewis was an appeal from a felony conviction following the death of a pedestrian. The defendant claimed to have thought he’d hit a deer. However the court pointed out that, among other things, the victim had been thrown right up against the windshield, leaving behind human hair that was later found by the police. This was sufficient evidence, the court concluded, to sink the defendant: he had cause to know that another person had been injured; he was therefore subject to felony prosecution.

The irony of cases like these is that causing personal injury through negligence – even if the injury results in death – is at most a traffic infraction, assuming you weren’t drunk or drugged at the time.

In short, Section 600 is designed to make sure that ‘running’ is far worse than ‘hitting’. Next time: just how much give is there in this law?