Article: You Can Be Guilty of Vehicular Homicide Even If Not Driving

Driving While Intoxicated

There’s no doubt 28-year-old part-time student James Ryan was driving drunk on the Long Island Expressway (LIE) in the pre-dawn hours of October 18, 2012. He was coming back from an evening of drinking in Manhattan, and his blood-alcohol test registered over 0.13%, well above New York’s 0.08% DUI threshold.

His Camry had been involved in two separate collisions: police say Ryan first clipped and disabled a BMW, then kept going before braking abruptly at an exit, causing a Honda Civic to rear-end his vehicle and injuring the other driver, Edward Wilson, an off-duty New York City detective. The second crash pushed the Camry into the concrete median and blocked the HOV lane.

Chain Reaction Kills Responding Officer

Responding to the accident, Nassau County police officer Joseph Olivieri, a 19-year police veteran, was killed after being struck by an Escalade SUV which had hit the wreckage of Ryan’s car. At the time of that collision, Ryan had exited his car and was leaning against a guardrail.

The next spring, a grand jury returned a 16-count indictment against Ryan; the charges included drunk driving, manslaughter and other crimes, including the recently created charge of aggravated vehicular homicide, a Class B felony carrying a 25-year maximum sentence. The new offense combines vehicular manslaughter with aggravating “plus” factors, such as causing multiple deaths, one death and one or more serious injuries, previous drunk driving, or a BAC level of 0.18% or up.

A judge dismissed that charge as not suited to the case, since he saw Olivieri’s death as solely due to the SUV driver, not Ryan. After several years of legal wrangling, all charges were reinstated by a New York appellate court. That court ruled the officer’s death was a reasonably foreseeable result of Ryan’s reckless conduct, since drunk driving could be expected to cause collisions, which could endanger first responders facing high-speed traffic.

According to the state appeals court, the charge could be brought even if Ryan’s reckless actions were not the only cause of Olivieri’s death and Ryan did not perform the final act leading to the policeman’s death. (The SUV driver was never charged, and was given immunity for testifying against Ryan.)

At trial, Ryan’s lawyers conceded their client had been driving drunk, but argued he was not responsible for either the second crash or Officer Olivieri’s death. Prosecutors contended Ryan had recklessly set in motion the chain of events which led to the police officer’s death, which was reasonably foreseeable.

A Rare Conviction for Criminally Negligent Homicide

The jury found Ryan guilty of 10 charges, including manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, but did not find him guilty of aggravated vehicular homicide. Only one possible aggravating factor that might have applied – causing one death and one serious injury – but the jury did not agree that Wilson, the driver in the second crash, had sustained serious enough injuries to qualify. Ryan drew a sentence of five years for criminally negligent homicide (only the fourth such conviction in the state), and between four and 12 years for manslaughter.