Friday, January 30, 2009

Does Consumption of Alcohol Before Driving Constitute Depravity?

On January 29, 2009, the Second Department decided People v. Valenica, a case with potentially great impact upon whether prosecutors can validly charge defendants with depraved indifference assaults (or homicides) when the defendant injures or kills another motorist while intoxicated.

On the date in question, Mr. Valenica drank alcohol at a friend's house and on his way home ended up driving his car northbound in the southbound lane at speeds in excess of 60 mph. After almost four miles, Valencia struck two other cars head-on causing serious injuries to the other passengers. His BAC was .21. The government charged Mr. Valencia with Assault in the First Degree (Penal Law 120.10[3][depraved indifference assault]).

At trial, the government argued that Mr. Valencia acted with depraved indifference by consuming large amounts of alcohol knowing that he would be driving later. Mr. Valencia argued that these facts did not constitute sufficient evidence of the mental state of depravity. The Second Department agreed and ruled:
"we find unpersuasive the prosecution's contention that the mens rea component of depraved indifference assault may be satisfied by considering the defendant's state of mind at a point much earlier in time than the accident, when the defendant allegedly made a conscious decision to consume an excessive amount of alcohol with the awareness that he subsequently would be operating a motor vehicle. Assuming arguendo that the evidence would support such a finding, and that such a state of mind would otherwise satisfy the culpable mental state of depraved indifference to human life, we conclude that the defendant's state of mind at the time he consumed the alcohol was too temporally remote from his operation of the vehicle to support a conviction for depraved indifference assault in this case".
There was one dissenter who argued that:
"While a defendant's mens rea is typically present at the time of the actus reus, the physical component of the crime (see e.g. People v Rosas, 8 NY3d 493, 499), the mens rea and actus reus in depraved indifference circumstances need not necessarily be simultaneous (see generally People v Kibbe, 35 NY2d 407; People v Galle, 77 NY2d 953 [criminally negligent homicide]). Therefore, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, as we must (see People v Contes, 60 NY2d 620, 624), the evidence presented at trial is legally sufficient to sustain the defendant's conviction of assault in the first degree based on depraved indifference to human life (see Penal Law § 120.10[3]). The evidence was sufficient to prove the defendant's culpable mental state at the time of his excessive drinking."
Given the presence of the dissenter, Indignant Indigent predicts this will not be the last we hear of Mr. Valencia.

Lastly, as a point of cultural interest, 60 Minutes produced a piece a few months ago on Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice's push to charge all DWI-related deaths as depraved indifference murders. You can read Bob Simon's article here and also view the interview with Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. And if you've read this far, you should also take a look at Kathleen Rice's re-election homepage which, naturally, advances her position that DWI-related deaths are actually murders.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

New Indignant Indigent Blogger

The Indignant Indigent blog is back online. Beginning immediately, Assistant Monroe County Public Defender David Abbatoy will take over blogging duties for this website. Mr. Abbatoy works in the Public Defender's Appeals Bureau and has briefed approximately 100 appellate cases, including cases before the Fourth Department and Court of Appeals. The Indignant Indigent will continue its focus on analysis of recent Fourth Department and Court of Appeals decisions, and will also begin to highlight notable decisions from the other appellate departments.

The site's former blogger, Brian Shiffrin, has become a member of the law firm of Easton, Thompson, Kasperek, and Shiffrin, and currently maintains the excellent "New York Criminal Defense Blog" available here.