Law School Case Brief
People v. Cabrera - 2008 NY Slip Op 3994, 10 N.Y.3d 370, 858 N.Y.S.2d 74, 887 N.E.2d 1132
The carelessness required for criminal negligence is appreciably more serious than that for ordinary civil negligence, and that the carelessness must be such that its seriousness would be apparent to anyone who shares the community's general sense of right and wrong. Moreover, criminal negligence requires a defendant to have engaged in some blameworthy conduct creating or contributing to a substantial and unjustifiable risk of a proscribed result; nonperception of a risk, even if the proscribed result occurs, is not enough.
It takes some additional affirmative act by the defendant to transform "speeding" into "dangerous speeding;" conduct by which the defendant exhibits the kind of seriously blameworthy carelessness whose seriousness would be apparent to anyone who shares the community's general sense of right and wrong.
Defendant Brett Cabrera, a 17-year old, held a class DJ driver's license, which: (a) automatically became a license when the holder turned 18 years old; (b) barred the holder from operating vehicle with more than two passengers under 21 years of age who were not members of the holder's immediate family, and; (c) required the holder to ensure that all passengers had buckled their seat belts. While driving to a lake, Cabrera had four teenage passengers in his vehicle. None of the passengers wore a seat belt. During the trip, Cabrera lost control of the vehicle, which then slid down a 25- to 30-foot embankment, killing three of the passengers and critically injuring the fourth. Cabrera was charged with three counts of criminally negligent homicide ( Penal Law § 125.10), one count of assault in the third degree (Penal Law § 120.00 ), reckless driving (Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1212), and various traffic infractions. After a trial in New York state court, the jury convicted Cabrera on all counts. The appellate division affirmed the convictions. The Court of Appeals of New York granted Cabrera's petition for review. Cabrera argued that the evidence adduced at trial was insufficient as a matter of law to sustain his convictions for criminally negligent homicide and third-degree assault; and, in the alternative, that he was entitled to a new trial because the trial judge's instructions were erroneous.
Was Cabrera guilty of negligent homicide and third-degree assault when he failed to negotiate the curve while driving, causing the car to crash and leaving the other passengers injured and dead?
The court modified the appellate division's order by dismissing the three counts of criminally negligent homicide and the count of assault in the third degree and vacating the sentences imposed thereon, and, as so modified, affirmed the order. The court held that Cabrera did not commit negligent homicide and third-degree assault. Cabrera, a young and inexperienced but sober driver, entered a tricky downhill curve, the site of other accidents, at a rate of speed well in excess of the posted warning sign. This behavior is certainly negligent, and unquestionably "blameworthy." However, court decisions uniformly looked for some kind of morally blameworthy component to excessive speed in determining criminal negligence; for example, consciously accelerating in the presence of an obvious risk. No such morally blameworthy behavior could be inferred from the testimony in the present case. The crash resulted from noncriminal failure to perceive risk; it was not the result of criminal risk creation. Moreover, the court noted that Cabrera's failure to ensure that his passengers wore seat belts was not conduct causing or contributing to the risk of an automobile accident; the fact that Cabrera's passengers were teenagers likewise did not cause or contribute to the crash. There was no evidence showing that Cabrera was showing off or was distracted by conversation with his passengers in the moments prior to the accident.
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