‘Hit-and-Run’ in New York – Part 2

“Go tell the Spartans, thou who passest by, that here, obedient to their laws, we lie.” Simonides

Last week’s entry addressed “leaving the scene of an incident without reporting.” Defined in Section 600 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, the statute is designed to punish hit-and-run driving. As we discussed, it’s very important to comply with Section 600’s requirements because, if the consequences of an accident are bad enough, a violator with no prior record can do 2 1/3 to 7 years in prison.

But just what does compliance look like in any but the most standard situations? We’ve attached a report by WTEN in Albany, NY, that touches on some of the ins and outs. The story involves an off-duty state trooper, his pickup truck, and a dead man left like a dog in the road.

The ultimate conclusion of the grand jury in the case? Heartless, maybe. Criminal, no.

Even so, the ex-trooper has paid a heavy price for his choices. He’s been publicly humiliated, lost his job, and (in all likelihood) run up thousands of dollars in legal fees. What’s more, the story correctly points out that his legal adventures may not be over: criminal liability isn’t the same thing as civil liability.

Some things are relevant in both civil and criminal proceedings. One is causation: You can’t be liable civilly if your actions didn’t cause the damage complained of; and although it doesn’t matter under Section 600 whether you caused damage, the statute only applies to you if you’ve been involved in a qualifying incident – one in which damage ‘has been caused’ to the property (real or personal) of another, or when personal injury, serious personal injury, or injury resulting in death ‘has been caused’ to another person. You can’t cause personal injury or death to a corpse, so this is a threshold issue. (For more on the general topic of ‘injury’ and the dead, take a look at People v. Darrow. Darrow was an assault case, but a crucial question there was whether the victim might already have been dead when he received a brutal kick from the defendant.)

Note that, according to the WTEN report, what saved the ex-trooper here was a ‘loophole in the law’. An interesting characterization, because this ‘loophole’ could more accurately be described as ‘the law’. After all, the dead aren’t ‘present’ in any meaningful sense, and the statute clearly states that “[i]n case the person sustaining the damage is not present at the place where the damage occurred then [the driver] shall report the same as soon as physically able to the nearest police station, or judicial officer.” In short, as was written many years ago in People v. Leigh, “a person has a reasonable time to report an accident, having in mind the prevailing circumstances.”

And there are very good reasons for this flexibility. You can imagine the absurd things that might happen if a driver really were required to stay put under any circumstances. In principle, if that second clause weren’t there, an uninjured driver with an operable car but no cell phone could be bound forever to the scene of a one-car accident in which he’s caused minor damage to the real property of another.

Nevertheless, law enforcement officers definitely tend to see that second clause as a ‘loophole’, when they see it at all. As many drivers have found out to their cost.

One of our clients, for instance, was involved in a very minor traffic accident: his bumper came into contact with another car’s bumper. Although there was no discernible damage to either car, the other driver called to report the occurrence to the police. Both drivers got back in their vehicles.

Then our client saw that the other car was pulling away and he followed, until it became obvious that the other driver was leaving the area altogether. Our client was confused and, not knowing what else to do, he returned to the intersection where the accident had occurred. The police arrived before long, and soon after that the other driver showed up.

Our client – but not the other driver – was charged with leaving the scene.

Another of our clients skidded on the ice, late one evening, and her car wound up in a ditch. It was a deserted stretch of road, our client had no cell phone, and the temperature was expected to drop below zero by morning. She knew there was a convenience store within a mile, so she set off on foot in that direction. Before she reached the store, however, a patrol car came upon her. She was charged with leaving the scene.

Neither client was convicted. But the general drift, in case you missed it, is that you leave the scene at your peril.