People v. Torres; People v. Lewis


Issue: Whether NYC’s “right of way” law is unconstitutional.

Held: No, it is not. In this pair of cases, one a conviction after trial (Lewis) and one by plea (Torres), the Court evaluated a series of arguments for why the City Council could not criminalize acting with ordinary civil negligence and causing physical injury while not yielding to a pedestrian or cyclist. It rejected the arguments and upheld the ordinance as a proper exercise of authority. 

CAL observes: The Court began its discussion by noting the public policy justification for the law: addressing pedestrian traffic deaths. Undoubtedly, that animated its decision not to overturn the City’s enactment.

Nonetheless, at the heart of this case were important questions touching on what harms our criminal legal system—versus the tort system—is meant to address. Despite longstanding principles at common law that criminal conduct requires more than ordinary negligence, the Court found that this law, which made it a crime to drive (and collide with a pedestrian or cyclist) with ordinary negligence, was proper. In its view, the City did not violate either due process (by criminalizing a mental state normally reserved for civil liability) or preemption (by going beyond what the State had authorized in either the Penal Law or Vehicle and Traffic Law).

Though strict liability has always existed in the criminal law, it is only imposed where the underlying conduct is something so obviously dangerous that a reasonable person is charged with avoiding it. Other than that limited exception, criminal negligence is the minimum mens rea that can result in criminal punishment. This case upends that. Hopefully this expansion of what is with the ambit of the criminal law will not lead to mass criminalization of acting with simple negligence—especially during an era where mass criminalization is finally being questioned and dismantled. Promoting traffic safety (or any number of social goods) is a laudable goal, but there are means other than criminalization to achieving that end.