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NYC judge rules Vision Zero “Right of Way” Law unconstitutional

In New York City, if a driver fails to exercise due care and seriously injures or kills a pedestrian he may be criminally charged based on the so called “Right of Way Law”. (Sect. 19-190 of the NYC Administrative Code ).This law  went into effect in NYC in August 2014 as part of the Vision Zero initiative to reduce injuries and deaths related to traffic accidents in the city.

Last Friday, June 24th, a Queens Judge ruled this law unconstitutional. Judge Gia Morris issued a  ruling in favor of  Isaac Sanson, a school bus driver who failed to yield to an elderly woman in a crosswalk and fatally hit her.  Morris opined that because drivers can be charged under the Right of Way law even if their intent or awareness of committing a violent act can’t be proven, the law violates Sanson’s due process.

“The very fabric of our criminal justice system is that an accused person stands before a court innocent until proven guilty, and is entitled to significant constitutional protections separate and distinct from a civil case,” Morris wrote. She went on to state that  it was conceded by by all parties that the law intended to use a civil tort negligence liability standard. She thus held that “Such use of a civil tort liability standard of negligence in a criminal case violates a defendant’s rights under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the federal constitution and state constitutional protections. Specifically, it violates a defendant’s right to due process, to be presumed innocent, and a defendant’s rights against self-incrimination. Thus, the defendant has met his burden of establishing, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the statute is unconstitutional.”

Safe Street advocates disagreed with the ruling. They argue for example that the burden of proof applied to the right of way law is similar than the burden of proof applied to the drunk driving law, also a criminal offense. When someone is drunk behind the wheel all that needs to be demonstrated to criminally charge the person is that the drunk driver could injure or kill someone. The same can be applied to reckless driving.

Mayor de Blasio issued a statement that despite the ruling, the city will continue to apply the Right of Way Law.

Since the law went into effect, many opponents including the bus drivers union have been fighting to repeal it.  The law was amended last year to include a definition of the driver’s responsibility as “that care which is exercised by a reasonably prudent driver.”

“The reference to civil negligence standards in the statute itself makes unmistakable that City Council members who adopted [the Right of Way law] intended to apply criminal penalties based on a civil negligence standard,” said Paul Steely White, director of Transportation Alternative in a statement. “Judge Morris’ decision fails to acknowledge that legislators can and do apply criminal penalties based on negligence”

Read more in the Gothamist