People v. Ryan

Decision Date09 May 2018
Docket Number2016–02266,Ind.No. 486/13
Parties The PEOPLE, etc., respondent, v. James RYAN, appellant.
CourtNew York Supreme Court — Appellate Division

Hug Law, PLLC, Albany, N.Y. (Matthew C. Hug of counsel), for appellant.

Madeline Singas, District Attorney, Mineola, N.Y. (Tammy J. Smiley, Yael V. Levy, and Sarah S. Rabinowitz of counsel), for respondent.

WILLIAM F. MASTRO, J.P., MARK C. DILLON, JEFFREY A. COHEN, ANGELA G. IANNACCI, JJ.

DECISION & ORDER

Appeal by the defendant from a judgment of the Supreme Court, Nassau County (Philip M. Grella, J.), rendered March 9, 2016, convicting him of manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, aggravated criminally negligent homicide, criminally negligent homicide, assault in the third degree, reckless driving, driving while intoxicated (two counts), reckless endangerment in the second degree, and leaving the scene of an incident without reporting, upon a jury verdict, and imposing sentence.

ORDERED that the judgment is modified, on the facts, by vacating the convictions of manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, aggravated criminally negligent homicide, and criminally negligent homicide, vacating the sentences imposed thereon, and dismissing those counts of the indictment; as so modified, the judgment is affirmed.

The charges against the defendant arise from an incident that occurred in the pre-dawn hours of October 18, 2013. The trial evidence showed that the defendant was driving eastbound on the Long Island Expressway (hereinafter the expressway) in Nassau County, when his vehicle sideswiped another vehicle. Shortly thereafter, the defendant stopped short in front of another vehicle, or abruptly changed lanes and "cut off" that vehicle, resulting in a second collision. The defendant's vehicle spun and came to rest in the high-occupancy vehicle (hereinafter HOV) lane of this four-lane stretch of the expressway, facing a barrier wall. The HOV lane was on the far left of the expressway, and the other three lanes of traffic were to the right of the HOV lane. Several other drivers stopped along the right shoulder of the expressway, and some of those individuals walked across the roadway to assist the defendant. One driver stopped his vehicle in the far-left lane of the expressway, roughly adjacent to the defendant's vehicle, and that driver left his headlights on. Several minutes after the second collision, a police officer responded and parked his vehicle on the far-right side of the roadway, with the emergency lights activated.

The responding police officer walked across the roadway and, while standing next to the defendant's car, spoke to the defendant. At this point, according to trial witnesses, traffic was continuing to proceed slowly through the accident scene, using the center lane of the three regular lanes of traffic, which was the only open lane, and driving past or over some collision debris. A driver in a black sport-utility vehicle (hereinafter SUV) approached the scene.

The trial evidence, including the evidence derived from a "black box" event recorder in the SUV, showed that the driver of the SUV approached the scene at 40 miles per hour, then slowed to only 37 miles per hour as he approached the defendant's vehicle. The driver of the SUV testified that, as he neared this area, his attention was focused on the right side of the roadway, where there were several stopped vehicles and a police patrol vehicle with flashing lights. The SUV struck the defendant's vehicle and then struck the police officer. The driver of the SUV testified that he did not brake until one second prior to the impact. The police officer died as a result of the accident. The trial evidence showed that the defendant was found to have a blood-alcohol content of 0.12% upon his arrival at a hospital approximately one hour after this incident.

Upon a jury verdict, the defendant was convicted of manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, aggravated criminally negligent homicide, criminally negligent homicide, assault in the third degree, reckless driving, driving while intoxicated (two counts), reckless endangerment in the second degree, and leaving the scene of an incident without reporting.

In evaluating a challenge to a conviction based on the legal sufficiency of the trial evidence, a court must "determine whether there is any valid line of reasoning and permissible inferences which could lead a rational person to the conclusion reached by the jury on the basis of the evidence at trial" ( People v. Bleakley, 69 N.Y.2d 490, 495, 515 N.Y.S.2d 761, 508 N.E.2d 672 ; see People v. Contes, 60 N.Y.2d 620, 621, 467 N.Y.S.2d 349, 454 N.E.2d 932 ). The court, while viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, must determine whether any rational trier of fact could have found that every element of the crime charged was established beyond a reasonable doubt (see People v. Lewis, 64 N.Y.2d 1111, 1112, 490 N.Y.S.2d 166, 479 N.E.2d 802 ; People v. Contes, 60 N.Y.2d at 621, 467 N.Y.S.2d 349, 454 N.E.2d 932 ).

"To be held criminally responsible for a homicide, a defendant's conduct must actually contribute to the victim's death by ‘set[ting] in motion’ the events that result in the killing" ( People v. DaCosta, 6 N.Y.3d 181, 184, 811 N.Y.S.2d 308, 844 N.E.2d 762, quoting People v. Matos, 83 N.Y.2d 509, 511, 611 N.Y.S.2d 785, 634 N.E.2d 157 [citation omitted] ). "Liability will attach even if the defendant's conduct is not the sole cause of death if the actions were a ‘sufficiently direct cause of the ensuing death’ " ( People v. DaCosta, 6 N.Y.3d at 184, 811 N.Y.S.2d 308, 844 N.E.2d 762, quoting People v. Stewart, 40 N.Y.2d 692, 697, 389 N.Y.S.2d 804, 358 N.E.2d 487 [citation and internal quotation marks omitted] ). More than an " ‘obscure or merely probable connection’ between the [defendant's] conduct and result is required" ( People v. DaCosta, 6 N.Y.3d at 184, 811 N.Y.S.2d 308, 844 N.E.2d 762, quoting People v. Stewart, 40 N.Y.2d at 697, 389 N.Y.S.2d 804, 358 N.E.2d 487 [internal quotation mark omitted] ). Rather, "an act ‘qualifies as a sufficiently direct cause when the ultimate harm should have been reasonably foreseen’ " ( People v. DaCosta, 6 N.Y.3d at 184, 811 N.Y.S.2d 308, 844 N.E.2d 762, quoting People v. Matos, 83 N.Y.2d at 511, 611 N.Y.S.2d 785, 634 N.E.2d 157 ; see Matter of Anthony M., 63 N.Y.2d 270, 280, 481 N.Y.S.2d 675, 471 N.E.2d 447 ; People v. Stewart, 40 N.Y.2d at 697, 389 N.Y.S.2d 804, 358 N.E.2d 487 ). The critical inquiry is whether the defendant's conduct was an "actual contributory cause of [the] death, in the sense that [it] ‘forged a link in the chain of causes which actually brought about the death’ " ( Matter of Anthony M., 63 N.Y.2d at 280, 481 N.Y.S.2d 675, 471 N.E.2d 447, quoting People v. Stewart, 40 N.Y.2d at 697, 389 N.Y.S.2d 804, 358 N.E.2d 487 ). An intervening, independent act will not constitute a superseding cause that exonerates a defendant, unless " ‘the death is solely attributable to the secondary agency, and not at all induced by the primary one’ " ( Matter of Anthony M., 63 N.Y.2d at 280, 481 N.Y.S.2d 675, 471 N.E.2d 447, quoting People v. Kane, 213 N.Y. 260, 270, 107 N.E. 655 ; see People v. Bonilla, 95 A.D.2d 396, 410, 467 N.Y.S.2d 599 ).

At bar, the People adduced legally sufficient evidence that the defendant's actions set in motion the events that led to the death of the police officer, and that the defendant's conduct was a sufficiently direct cause of that result. It was reasonably foreseeable that the defendant's conduct, including driving while intoxicated, causing the initial collision, failing to stop after the initial collision, and causing a second collision, would cause a dangerous condition on the roadway that would pose a danger to police or other first responders, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the incidents and prior to the securing of the accident scene (see People v. DaCosta, 6 N.Y.3d at 186, 811 N.Y.S.2d 308, 844 N.E.2d 762 ; People v. Uribe, 109 A.D.3d 844, 844, 971 N.Y.S.2d 60 ; People v. Cipollina, 94 A.D.3d 1549, 1549, 943 N.Y.S.2d 710 ; cf. People v. Ballenger, 106 A.D.3d 1375, 968 N.Y.S.2d 610 ). The People adduced legally sufficient evidence of causation as to the counts of manslaughter in the second degree, vehicular manslaughter in the second degree, aggravated criminally negligent homicide, and criminally negligent homicide.

In addition, the jury charge as to the principles of causation was proper, as it was based on the model charge contained in the Criminal Jury Instructions (see CJI2d[NY] Penal Law art. 125—Causation; People v. Uribe, 109 A.D.3d at 844, 971 N.Y.S.2d 60 ; see also People v. Prospect, 50 A.D.3d 1064, 1064, 856 N.Y.S.2d 644 ; People v. Lubrano, 43 A.D.3d 829, 830, 844 N.Y.S.2d 319 ; People v. Pedro, 36 A.D.3d 832, 833, 829 N.Y.S.2d 565 ; People v. McDonald, 283 A.D.2d 592, 593, 724 N.Y.S.2d 899 ). Contrary to the defendant's contention, the Supreme Court did not err in curtailing cross-examination questions of the driver of the SUV regarding his alleged lengthy record of driving offenses, his alleged receipt of a grant of immunity, and the "offenses he could have been charged with" arising from this incident. While the SUV driver had a record of driving violations that went "back to the 1980s," including seven accidents from 1989 to 2015, and an alleged 30 convictions of driving offenses such as speeding, failure to yield right of way, failure to obey traffic control devices, operating without insurance, and operating without a license, these issues were of minimal, if any, relevance to the issue of whether it was foreseeable to the defendant that a driver would approach this accident scene and collide with one of the stopped vehicles and/or a pedestrian, and had the potential to mislead or confuse the jury (see ...

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2 cases
  • People v. Caden N.
    • United States
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    • October 22, 2020
    ...1147–1148, 889 N.Y.S.2d 741 [2009], lv denied 14 N.Y.3d 804, 899 N.Y.S.2d 138, 925 N.E.2d 942 [2010] ; compare People v. Ryan, 161 A.D.3d 893, 897, 77 N.Y.S.3d 411 [2018] ). Accordingly, the verdict is not against the weight of the evidence. Although not challenging County Court's Frye ruli......
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