The law makes it a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $250 fine or 30 days in prison for a driver to strike and injure or kill a pedestrian who has the right of way, and is intended as a preventative measure against traffic fatalities. In an opinion issued Friday, Judge Gia L. Morris argued that because it applies a lower standard of blame than most criminal laws, the law is unconstitutional under both the New York State and U.S. Constitutions.
Morris issued the opinion in the case of Isaac Sanson, a school bus driver who hit and killed an 85-year-old woman named Jeanine Deutsch in a crosswalk in Queens in 2014. Sanson was arrested and prosecuted under the right of way law, which he claimed violated his due process. Morris agreed.
The right of way statute differs from other criminal laws in that it presumes criminality in every case in which a driver hits someone who has the right of way and injures or kills them, whether or not the driver can be found criminally negligent or reckless. In other words, it’s not necessary for prosecutors to prove anything about the driver’s state of mind to find them guilty, only that they caused a crash. As the attorney and safe streets advocate Steve Vaccaro has repeatedly pointed out, this is the same standard we use to prosecute drunk drivers; New York City’s innovation is simply in applying it to reckless drivers of all types. Streetsblog notes that another local criminal court has already upheld the constitutionality of the law, and it seems well within the realm of possibility that Morris’s ruling will be overturned if the Queens DA elects to appeal it.
The law, and Morris’s ruling, do present a dilemma for people who care about curbing both the tide of New Yorkers who are killed in traffic violence and that of those who have their lives irrevocably altered by contact with the police and criminal justice system. On the one hand, cars killed about four and a half people every week in NYC last year, and a solution is obviously and sorely needed. On the other, the NYPD cuffs and locks up far too many people as it is. Should our laws really be making it any easier to send ordinary drivers to jail?
Criminalizing more people shouldn’t be the first or only answer to any social problem. In the case of traffic violence, we should be redesigning streets to make them more hospitable to pedestrians before we cook up ways to arrest more people. However, based on the sheer number of people who are killed in traffic, and the dearth of action of any kind against the people who kill them, it’s clear that more aggressive enforcement against drivers who fail to yield is needed.