Leaving the Scene of an Accident (VTL 600) charges in New York City Case Study by NYC Criminal Lawyer Don Murray
VTL Section 600 charges are often far less easily resolved in New York City Criminal Court than people imagine. It is tempting to believe, and the arresting officers frequently encourage the belief, that a Leaving the Scene of an Accident charge is really just another sort of traffic ticket, like speeding. People faced with such charges therefore tend to minimize the significance of it and tend toward expectations that it is something that will simply “go away” once it actually finds its way to court.
My most recent leaving the scene of an accident client, however, learned that these initial expectations were misplaced, and soon came to realize that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office took these cases quite seriously, and that the case was not just going to magically go away. The case lasted five months in court, required extensive legal research, substantive investigation, and was only able to be settled today as a result of the thorough work on the case, and an authorization from the special VTL unit in the DA’s Office. The client avoided the risk of a trial and the risk of damaging his military career with a criminal conviction.
The Case as it Presented Itself to Me
My future client approached me after he had been arrested and given a Desk Appearance Ticket for Leaving the Scene of an Accident in violation of VTL 600. Ideally, I would have preferred to have been contacted before this, because he had made detailed statements to the arresting officer to whom he voluntarily surrendered. My client is in the military, but was also working as a driver for a taxi type service while undeployed. He advised me that one afternoon, he made a turn and hit a pedestrian who was blocked from his view by the car ahead of him also making the same turn. My client told me that it was more of a graze than a direct hit, and this was supported by the video footage he provided from his dashcam. According to my client, the pedestrian was unharmed as far as he could tell, and she in fact kept saying that she was ok and uninjured. In fact, my client reported that she actually argued with nearby witnesses who approached her to see if she were ok. The witnesses kept insisting that she get medical help, but she persisted in telling them that she was not hurt. With the pedestrian saying that she was unhurt, and there being no property damage, my client drove away. One of the witnesses snapped a picture of my client’s vehicle, however, and provided it to the pedestrian, who later on called the police. Armed with the picture, the police located my client, contacted him, and he went to the Precinct. According to my client, the police officer at the precinct showed him a picture of some red bumps or scrapes on the pedestrian’s leg and said that this was her injury and that he was going to have to arrest him for leaving the scene of an accident.
The Way of the World in Leaving the Scene Cases in NYC
The District Attorney Offices in NYC, including Manhattan, take a particular interest in leaving the scene cases, and strictly control the availability of settlements of these cases. Unlike some sorts of misdemeanor matters, where the accused has no criminal history, the easy and quick availability of non criminal resolution, if that is desired, is not going to apply to leaving the scene matters. Expect a difficult and long trek through the criminal justice system on a leaving the scene case, especially where there are allegations of non-trivial physical injury or property damage. You are not in traffic court, and even though it seems like a traffic ticket because it is a VTL matter, and you got a DAT, you are in dangerous policy-driven territory. And this is where my client found himself, to his horror. His initial expectations were that the matter was so simple that it would be easy for me to secure an outright dismissal, let alone some traffic infraction. In his case, a favorable resolution was important to him because as a member of the military, a criminal conviction would be a blemish on his record that could easily destroy his ability to advance as he hoped.
As we learned more about the case, however, things got more complicated. In discussions with the prosecutor, I learned that the pedestrian had suffered a concussion that caused her to suffer cognitive problems that kept her out of work for a month. It seems her symptoms did not manifest themselves until some time after the incident, which apparently is not uncommon. This transformed the case from one where the victim arguably suffered trivial injuries to a case where the victim arguably suffered far more serious injuries. This is not a recipe for easy or quick great settlements of leaving the scene of an accident cases.
The 911 Call
We obtained the 911 call made by the pedestrian and this provided us a ray of hope and potentially an interesting legal argument. The worry that I had, despite my client’s claims, was that the 911 call would reveal a hysterical pedestrian screaming in pain complaining that my client left the scene. This would be inconsistent with my client’s portrayal of the pedestrian as dismissive of the notion that she was injured. While not necessarily definitive, of course, it would make things more difficult and would make the prosecutor less likely to want to negotiate favorably with us.
As it turned out, however, the 911 call turned out to be a powerful piece of evidence in our favor. The pedestrian was the very picture of composure. She was not hysterical. She told the 911 operator multiple times that she did not need medical attention, and even actually laughed once about it. My wife suggested that the calm, matter of fact attitude of the pedestrian on the phone sounded as if she were calling to make an appointment for a manicure. And while the pedestrian did say that my client had driven away, she didn’t complain about it or suggest that she had told him not to leave because she was injured.
The Interesting Legal Issue
The 911 call provided support for my client’s position that the pedestrian was dismissive of the notion that she was injured, and thereby created the foothold for an interesting legal issue. The law related to leaving the scene of an accident creates a very low threshold of injury that requires a driver to stop and exchange information. According to the statute, that threshold is met if a person suffers “personal injury”. So one question is then, what does personal injury mean exactly? The answer is that New York law actually doesn’t define it. New York law does define “physical injury” which is an important concept in the crime of assault. But there is no precise statutory definition of “personal injury” at least in the VTL 600 statute. Courts have held that personal injury is something less than physical injury, but no court has taken the trouble to put pen to paper to tell us exactly what “personal injury” means.
Another important legal question is how much does the driver who wants to leave the scene have to know? Does the driver actually have to see, for example, that there is personal injury? The answer from our courts is that a person is guilty of leaving the scene if the person “knows or has reason to know” that personal injury has occurred. This means that a driver who causes a three car pile up with an explosion can drive away and say that he didn’t actually see anyone injured at all. The law says that if you have reason to know that there is personal injury, that is good enough. Therefore, a person who drives away from a three car pile up with an explosion is likely to be held to have had “reason to know” that anyone involved in that three car pile up suffered personal injury.
But in this case, I now had arguments on both the issue of “personal injury” and “reason to know”. While the red bumps and scrapes apparently visible at the scene were “something” it was not entirely clear that they would be considered “personal injury” enough to trigger criminal liability under VTL Section 600. Further, concussion and related cognitive impairment that manifested themselves later on were obviously not something my client would have known about or had reason to know about. The pedestrian herself did not seem to believe that she was injured, and if she herself did not believe she was injured, how could my client be expected to know this?
Ultimately, the prosecutor came to the conclusion that indeed my client had not committed the crime of leaving the scene of an accident, and agreed to dismiss all criminal charges. In exchange, however, they did ask my client to pay a $50 fine for failing to yield to a pedestrian (a simple traffic infraction). The matter was concluded. Remember that this did not play out in one appearance. This outcome was the result of numerous conversations with the prosecutor and with my client over the course of five months. It involved significant legal research to hone in on the legal issues related to personal injury and the required knowledge, and it involved the investigation of the accident. It wasn’t a fast result, and it wasn’t easily achieved. Leaving the Scene of Accident cases (VTL 600) are serious matters that are paid careful attention to by the prosecutor offices in New York City.
Don Murray is a partner in the NYC criminal defense law firm Shalley and Murray. He has spent his entire career as a criminal defense lawyer, and regularly handles leaving the scene of accident matters. He can help you too. If you have been arrested for leaving the scene of an accident in New York City, or if you have been contacted by a Detective about surrendering on a Leaving the Scene of an Accident case, call 718-268-2171 to speak to Don Murray about your case.