Fault Lines
25 May 2017

The Blurred Line Between Tragic Accident And Homicide

Jan. 21, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — In a few days, a week, maybe two, a Nassau County, Long Island jury will make a decision.  Beyond the guilt or non-guilt of a particular defendant, these twelve citizens will be forced to decide whether the death of a police officer was an accident with tragic consequences, or was it something much, much more?  Was it homicide?

The case is the People of the State of New York v. James Ryan. The underlying facts, as laid out by the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department, are as follows:

According to the evidence presented to a grand jury, on October 18, 2012, before dawn, the defendant allegedly caused two collisions when he drove his car on the Long Island Expressway while he was under the influence of alcohol. In the immediate aftermath of those collisions, the defendant’s stopped vehicle was in the eastbound High Occupancy Vehicle (hereinafter HOV) lane, facing perpendicular to the direction of traffic. Within a few minutes, a police officer responded to the scene. While the officer was standing near the defendant’s stopped car, he was struck and killed when the driver of a sport utility vehicle traveling in the HOV lane did not see him or the defendant’s stopped car in time to avoid hitting them.

There was never any doubt that the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office was going to charge Ryan with driving while intoxicated. DWI charges are kind of their thing.  What surprised a number of people, including Mr. Ryan’s defense attorneys, was that the DA’s Office was able to obtain an indictment for far more serious charges.

In April of 2013, a Nassau County grand jury voted to indict James Ryan on not only the DWI and related driving violations and misdemeanors, but also manslaughter and homicide charges for causing the death of Nassau Police Officer Joseph Olivieri.  As it stands, if the trial jury returns a verdict of guilty on the top count against Ryan, aggravated vehicular homicide, Judge Phillip Grella will have no choice but to sentence this 28 year old to 5 to 25 years in prison.

Before it got to this point, though, Ryan’s attorneys scored a huge victory. In December of 2013, Judge Jerald Carter dismissed the manslaughter and homicide charges, ruling that the evidence before the grand jury was legally insufficient to show that Ryan had legally “caused” Officer Olivieri’s death.

After Judge Carter turned this homicide case into a DWI case, the Nassau County DA’s Office appealed his ruling.  The Appellate Division, Second Department disagreed with Carter, and turned Ryan’s case back into a homicide.

The central principle in Ryan’s case is this.

In order to be held criminally liable for a person’s death, a defendant must have engaged in conduct that “actually contribute[d]” to that person’s death (People v DaCosta, 6 NY3d 181, 184 [2006]), by setting in motion the events that resulted in the death (see People v Matos, 83 NY2d 509, 511 [1994]).

To the untrained eye, this sentence in the Second Department’s decision may seem fairly straightforward. Assuming that Ryan was intoxicated (it is alleged that his BAC was .13%; legal limit in New York is .08%), he drove drunk and caused an accident.  This set in motion the officer responding to the scene of that accident where he was hit by another car.  So Ryan’s actions “actually contributed” to Officer Olivieri’s death.  Right?

The law is not that easy. The law is never that easy.  Judges often write sentences that seem to be clear in their simplicity, but the trained eye of a lawyer knows to dig deeper to find the actual legal meaning.  In this particular decision, the digging begins at People v. DaCosta and People v. Matos. These cases along with People v. Kibbe provide actual examples of the line between accident and homicide by showing just how far New York courts have been willing to attenuate causation.

In DaCosta, an officer was chasing a suspect who ran across a six-lane expressway.  During the chase the officer fell off the median, was struck by a moving vehicle, and died.  In Matos, officers responded to a restaurant where a robbery was in progress.  One of the officers saw a suspect climb the ladder to the roof.  The officer pursued the suspect onto the roof, fell down an airshaft and died.  In Kibbe, the defendants kidnapped the victim, robbed him and dumped him on the side of an unlit road.  The victim, who was highly intoxicated, was in the middle of the road when a motorist struck and killed him.

As precedent goes, these cases are a bit odd. While DaCosta and Matos are definitely instructive on the legal parameters of causation, it is difficult to see how those cases support a finding of causation in the matter of James Ryan.  Both of those cases stand for the legal principle that if you are being chased by the police and one of the officers is killed during that chase, you have legally “caused” that death.  Ryan was not fleeing.  He allegedly got into an auto accident.  The fact that he may have been intoxicated is relevant, but it is not nearly enough to close the gaping hole in the causation argument.

The Kibbe case shows exactly how far the Second Department had to stretch to find a legal basis to sustain Ryan’s case.  While the facts of Kibbe are closer to Ryan’s than DaCosta and Matos, the Second Department should not get any points for finding a more similar case than others that were quite different.  In Kibbe, the assailants took a highly intoxicated man into a secluded road outside Rochester (basically Canada) on December 30.  The fact that they dumped the victim out with little clothing in almost 0 degree weather may have contributed to the jury’s decision to convict (and the Court of Appeals decision to affirm that conviction).  But notwithstanding the frigid elements, Kibbe basically holds that if you dump a drunk person (the autopsy showed his BAC was .25%) on the side of a non-lit highway in the dead of winter and that person is hit by a car, you have legally caused the death of that person.

It is curious that the Second Department, in a rather short opinion, merely dropped these three cases and basically walked away as though the connection between them and Ryan’s case was clear. It is not.  Ryan may have been legally drunk when he caused that accident, but a BAC of .13% would be child’s play amongst some of the numbers you would hear if you spent a day in a DWI court room.

But it is not the causation between Ryan’s intoxication and the accident that is at issue. It is the causation between the accident and the death, 5 to 10 minutes later, of Officer Olivieri.  Unlike the monsters who robbed and then dumped someone in the freezing cold on the side of the road, James Ryan allegedly drove drunk and caused an accident.  If someone had died in that accident, then I would not be writing about Ryan, the Second Department or Rochester winters.

But no one did. Officer Olivieri arrived and presumably secured the scene.  It was dark so we must assume that his sirens and lights were on.  A motorist drove into the accident scene and killed Olivieri.  This was undoubtedly a tragedy.  But to allow the Nassau County DA’s Office to try to convince a jury that this accident was actually a homicide is morally and legally irresponsible.

If James Ryan is convicted of manslaughter or homicide, then by ignoring the precedent that did exist, the Second Department will have allowed the creation of entirely new precedent. People v. Ryan will stand for the precedent that there is little difference between a tragic accident and a homicide.

14 Comments on this post.

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  • Keith
    21 January 2016 at 10:23 am - Reply

    This is one of those cases where being a CDL probably gives you a special lens to see the conduct. From my layman’s perspective, wouldn’t a “but for” test be the easiest way to determine if the alcohol caused the death?

    To put it simply, but for the alcohol, would he have caused the crash? If yes, but for the crash, would the cop have been there to get hit?

    While I can understand a multiple step causation test being problematic in light of the precedents you cited above, it’s not like a cop attending a crash is an unlikely event for a drunk driver to consider. Does the probability of what the second hop is figure in at all?

    • shg
      21 January 2016 at 10:38 am - Reply

      That’s how rationalization, building inference upon inference, works, and why no one ever knows what a jury will do. But when we reach the Butterfly Theory of Law, there is no end to the potential connections one can make if one stretches far and hard enough.

    • Windypundit
      21 January 2016 at 10:56 am - Reply

      What if it wasn’t a DWI? What it it was speeding? Or right turn on red where not allowed? An equipment violation? Illegal parking? In all those cases, it would not be unlikely event for a cop to stand alongside the car, and he wouldn’t be there but for the violation. What’s the principle here? That whenever a cop gets struck and killed we pin a murder on whoever made him get out of his patrol car?

      And where does it stop? If one of the police witnesses in Ryan’s trial gets killed in a car accident while driving to the courthouse — which but for Ryan’s alleged DWI, he wouldn’t be doing — does Ryan get hit with another murder charge?

      A few years ago, there was a case where prosecutors considered charging a driver for felony murder after he led police on a car chase and two news helicopters covering the chase collided in mid air.

      This just seems like the road to madness.

      • Keith
        21 January 2016 at 11:02 am - Reply

        In my mind, the probability of a crash, which would require a cop to stop, whether it was in a dangerous place or not, made it different than an equipment violation – where the cop could direct the car to a shoulder of somewhere safe (or choose not to pull the car over at all).

        But I see your point and think you probably have the better argument on this one. Thanks.

  • Ken Womble
    21 January 2016 at 11:19 am - Reply

    Windy beat me to the punch. What he said.

    • Burgers Allday
      22 January 2016 at 8:49 pm - Reply

      be careful, mr. womble. shg has a conniption fit when peeps don’t use the reply button!

  • Andy
    21 January 2016 at 11:36 am - Reply

    I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to foresee that driving while intoxicated will lead to traffic accidents, and that deaths may result from said accidents. That seems like common knowledge to me.

    • Ken Womble
      21 January 2016 at 12:04 pm - Reply

      Which is why I said this … ” James Ryan allegedly drove drunk and caused an accident. If someone had died in that accident, then I would not be writing about Ryan, the Second Department or Rochester winters.”

  • Unreasonably Foreseeable To A Drunk | Simple Justice
    22 January 2016 at 8:08 am - Reply

    […] misbegotten prosecution of James Ryan for the bizarre death of Police Officer Joseph Olivieri.  At Fault Lines, Ken Womble provides the backstory from the Appellate Division, Second Department’s decision […]

  • DaveL
    22 January 2016 at 9:11 am - Reply

    People v. Ryan will stand for the precedent that there is little difference between a tragic accident and a homicide.

    I think the difference would be clear: if a police officer dies and a civilian can be blamed, it’s a homicide. If a civilian dies at the hands of a police officer, it’s a tragic accident.

  • Peter Liang: The Wrong Trial Of The Wrong Cop
    25 January 2016 at 12:26 pm - Reply

    […] 25, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — In a post last week about a Long Island trial, the focus was the vitally important distinction between a tragic accident and a homicide. Oddly […]

  • Crime and punishment roundup – Overlawyered
    26 January 2016 at 12:30 am - Reply

    […] original crash also be charged with manslaughter and homicide arising from officer’s death? [Ken Womble, Fault Lines on Long Island case of People v. James […]

  • Jake
    26 January 2016 at 11:01 pm - Reply

    It has been my observation that police routinely park and stand on and near roadsides in ways that appear unsafe.

  • Paul Vitello
    10 March 2016 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    A Nassau County judge sentenced James Ryan to serve 4 to 12 years in prison this week — a testimony to the disproportionate influence of the so-called victims rights movement and the police unions in the courts of Long Island. This prosecution, by a DA in midst of an election campaign– fearful of the backlash she might have suffered from (justifiably) angry family members, and (not justifiably) vengeful police union leaders if she brought less than the most outlandishly punitive charges against this stupid young man– is a disgrace.