Friday, June 05, 2009

Speeding Driver Acted With Depraved Indifference

In People v. Michael Prindle, the defendant was driving his car at a high rate of speed (unspecified in the decision) on city streets and often drove in the opposing lane of traffic in an attempt to escape police pursuit. He was convicted of depraved indifference murder when his car struck another and killed an occupant. The Fourth Department determined that there was sufficient evidence of depraved indifference murder and affirmed the conviction. In so holding, the court said:
"Here, the evidence presented at trial established that, while attempting to escape from the police, defendant drove a van at a high rate of speed on city streets on a weekend afternoon, often traveling in the opposing lane of traffic. We thus conclude that the evidence establishes that defendant acted with depraved indifference, i.e., "a wanton indifference to human life or depravity of mind" (People v Gomez, 65 NY2d 9, 11; see People v Gonzalez, 288 AD2d 321, lv denied 97 NY2d 754; People v Williams, 184 AD2d 437, lv denied 80 NY2d 935)."
There are two interesting elements to this decision. First, the decision does not state whether Mr. Prindle killed the victim while driving in the opposing lane of traffic. Generally, just driving in the opposing lane of traffic does not evince unusual brutality, wickedness, or evil, mostly because it appears Mr. Prindle was hoping to avoid oncoming traffic and escape the police. Moreover, if he did not kill the victim while doing so, there is no causal link between the action and the result. A second, interrelated, point of interest is that the Fourth Department did not cite to Feingold or Jean-Baptiste in support of its conclusion that the defendant acted with depravity. Of course, since Register was overruled, depravity is no longer a factual circumstance (i.e. driving in the opposing lane of traffic), but rather it is a mental state. The court did not analyze how Mr. Prindle's actions evinced unusual brutality, wickedness, or evil in light of Mr. Prindle's obvious goal of evading the police. This quote from Suarez, is instructive on that point:
"Reckless homicide cannot be elevated into depraved indifference murder merely because the actions of the defendant created a risk of death, however grave or substantial that risk may have been. Otherwise, manslaughter in the second degree would routinely and automatically become depraved indifference murder inasmuch as the victim (who was, after all, killed) was necessarily exposed to a grave or substantial risk of death. The critical statutory language that separates second-degree manslaughter from depraved indifference murder is the defendant’s underlying depraved indifference. Circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life are not established by recklessness coupled only with actions that carry even an inevitable risk of death. "
(People v. Suarez, 6 NY3d 202, 213-214 [italics in original).