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Justification defense causes appellate court to overturn manslaughter conviction

On Tuesday, February 16, the Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the 2008 conviction of Freddy Rodriguez. Rodriguez had been convicted in Bronx County Supreme Court of manslaughter, vehicular manslaughter, and two counts each of assault in the second degree, vehicular assault in the second degree, and DWI. The full text of the decision is available here.

The prosecution presented evidence that the defendant got into a parked delivery truck without permission and, while intoxicated, caused it to roll downhill through an intersection and strike three persons (killing one child and seriously injuring two other people). The defendant testified that he observed the parked truck suddenly start rolling downhill, and that he jumped into the moving vehicle in a heroic, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to prevent it from causing harm.

The majority (by 3-2 vote) overturned the conviction because the trial judge declined to charge the jury on the defense of justification, provided in Penal Law Section 35.05:

"[C]onduct which would otherwise constitute an offense is justifiable and not criminal when: 2. Such conduct is necessary as an emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury which is about to occur by reason of a situation occasioned or developed through no fault of the actor, and which is of such gravity that, according to ordinary standards of intelligence and morality, the desirability and urgency of avoiding such injury clearly outweigh the desirability of avoiding the injury sought to be prevented by the statute defining the offense in issue… Whenever evidence relating to the defense of justification under this subdivision is offered for the defendant, the court shall rule as a matter of law whether the claimed facts and circumstances would, if established, constitute a defense."

It is unsurprising that defendant was convicted, as the credible evidence against him seemed overwhelming. The defendant's blood was taken after his arrest, and the subsequent chemical tests on the blood revealed that he likely had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of approximately .13 and .17% at the time of the accident. For context, it is a crime to drive a motor vehicle in New York state with a BAC of .08% or higher. Also, a key prosecution witness, Carlos Montilla, testified that he observed defendant – whom he had known for over ten years – get out of the truck after the crash and state that he was "joking around" and "had taken the truck to play a trick on the owner". He also testified that he observed the defendant drinking beer on the corner earlier in the day. In response, the defendant testified that he had not been drinking alcohol and that he did not know Carlos Montilla.

Clearly, the defendant's testimony, from here, sounds more than a little far-fetched. Indeed, Judge McGuire, writing for the dissent, opined that "defendant's claim… was preposterous, particularly because the evidence that defendant was intoxicated also was overwhelming and unrefuted." Thus, the failure to charge on this defense was harmless in the dissent's view. The dissent also agreed with the trial prosecutor's argument that according to the defendant, the defendant did not, in fact, commit a crime, and this particular justification charge under Penal Law Section 35.05 only applies to criminal conduct done justified by emergency circumstances. In response, the majority argued that the jury could have concluded that the defendant had been lying about his intoxication, but truthful about jumping into the moving vehicle and trying to prevent the accident.

The decision seems to suggest that to be safe, a trial judge will need to charge the jury on justification anytime there is any possibility that the jury could conclude that the defendant had committed a crime in order to prevent an injury, regardless of whether the credible evidence reasonably supported that conclusion or whether it was even the defendant's theory of the case.

Mr. Rodriguez's sentence of 6 to 15 years was vacated and the case was remanded for a new trial. However, the Bronx District Attorney's Office will almost certainly seek leave to appeal to the Court of Appeals, New York's highest state court.